Suicide: When the “storyline” can’t be clear

17 July 2003 – This week PressWise has begun distribution of new guidelines devised by journalists and based on detailed research, to help improve coverage of suicide by the media.

Two schools, three teenagers, three premature and tragic deaths. The connection? They are all suicides and they all happened within the space of a month.

What’s much less clear is the cause. Yet according to one UK national tabloid, there isn’t any doubt.

Second suicide at bully-hit school
The Mirror, 18 June 2003
A SECOND pupil at a school where a teenager was bullied to death committed suicide after she was allegedly picked on.

Hours later, the regional evening paper disagrees.

Gemma’s notes left no clue to death
Newcastle Evening Chronicle, 18 June 2003
Schoolgirl Gemma Dimmick left no clue as to what drove her to suspected suicide in notes found nearby.

An evening paper on Merseyside, following an interview with a boy’s grief-stricken mother, decides school bullying is solely to blame for his suicide.

Bullied to death
Liverpool Echo, 3 July 2003
A BULLIED schoolboy has died at his Merseyside home after taking an overdose of painkillers.

But just days later its sister paper reports the opposite.

My son didn’t die because of bullies
Liverpool Post, 9 July 2003
THE father of the schoolboy who died last week after swallowing a huge amount of pain-killers believes his son did not die because of bullying.

So what’s the truth? Sadly, the intricacies of suicidal behaviour mean we’ll probably never know.

Suicide is a complex issue, as PressWise demonstrates in its new guidelines Reporting Suicide: Guidelines for Journalists from Journalists. It’s neither helpful nor accurate for journalists to suggest that people take their own life as a result of a single factor.

Suicide prevention agencies back this up.

Samaritans, which provides confidential emotional support, 24 hours a day for people in the UK and Republic of Ireland, stresses that people do not decide to take their own life in response to a single event, however painful that event may be.

ChildLine, the free, 24-hour helpline for children and young people in the UK, says that thoughts of suicide rarely come out of the blue or as a reaction to a sudden or isolated problem. Although it does believe that constant bullying on its own can be enough to make children want to kill themselves.

Ill-informed media speculation doesn’t help.

Detailed research into media coverage in several countries has shown that sensitive reporting of suicide can save lives, but sensational or detailed coverage can encourage copycat behaviour.

Suicide can and should make the news. But at the same time what can journalists do to minimise harm to vulnerable people?

Sensitive reporting should include:
* considering the feelings of relatives and friends;
* avoiding detailed descriptions of suicide methods;
* acknowledging the complexities of suicidal behaviour and its link to mental health;
* providing information about where help and advice can be found.

The media can go a long way to help improve public understanding of suicide issues by challenging the common myths, providing information about the risk factors and detailing the variety of contributory causes. This approach is well-timed as the UK Government develops strategies to reduce suicide, especially among young people.

On this occasion both the Evening Chronicle and The Journal in Newcastle have gone some way towards trying to explain the multiple factors, including low expectations, high unemployment, and lack of self-worth among young people growing up in deprived parts of the North, that may have contributed to two of these tragic deaths. It’s an example of sound journalistic practice that other newspapers and broadcasters would do well to follow.

Charlotte Barry,
Associate Director

(Bulletin No 90)

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