1) When should suicides be covered / 2) When we decide to write about suicide, how should we do so?
Based on the research I have carried out, looking at Samaritans.org and ReportingOnSuicide.org, their message is that it is not a case of when should suicides be covered it is more of an emphasis on how they should be covered. The public have a right to know the circumstances of how someone has died, but they do not need to know the details, e.g. ‘Kurt Cobain used shotgun to commit suicide’ should instead be shortened to minimise prominence and to avoid sensationalising the suicide, e.g. ‘Kurt Cobain dead at 27’.
With this in mind it can also be said that perhaps we do not always need to be informed when someone has committed suicide. Many stories may be covered in a local newspaper as the person who has died may have been a well-known member of the community, but suicide stories rarely make the national headlines. This is not a bad thing either as we should not intrude on families’ grief at a difficult time. It is human nature that we want to know why something happened, to discover the truth, but with suicide we can only speculate why they decided to take their own life, therefore it should not be reported at all as this can create false perceptions of a persons’ character.
From a journalist’s perspective, when we study this field we are drilled to always seek and write about the who, what, where, when, how and why. It is the last one, the why, which we find difficult to let go, as when covering suicides, we don’t know the why, yet we feel compelled to write a reason, and this is ill advised. Hodges writes that: “the roots of responsibility per se lie in the fact that we are both individual and social beings whose decisions and actions inevitably affect others. The very fact that we have the ability or power to affect each other deeply, either for good or for ill, requires that we act responsibly toward each other if society is to endure.” (Hodges, 1986: 16) (1)
As a journalist I have a responsibility to cover suicide in a responsible way and to acknowledge that it is ok that we don’t know why they chose to took their life, it is better to leave that information out rather than to sensationalise and make some of the story up. If I were to do the latter it would demonstrate that I lack solid reporting skills, as Ann Luce notes: “If you need to embellish information, or make ‘facts’ up to grab a headline, then you are showing your readership that you do not have the skills to dig deeper and investigate the subject of your story in greater depth. Despite the fast-paced newsrooms that you are faced with today, always strive for excellence in your reporting. Stand for something; have principles.” (2)
When we decide to write about suicide we must do so with great care, not revealing details that could lead to ‘Suicide Contagion’, which occurs when one or more suicides are reported in a way that contributes to another suicide. It is important that we as journalists carefully investigate the most recent CDC data and use non-sensational words like ‘rise’ or ‘higher’. We should report on suicide as a public health issue and seek advice from suicide prevention experts while writing articles. Avoiding misinformation and offering hope is also an important factor, including referring to research findings, avoiding reporting that death by suicide was preceded by a single event and we should also consider quoting a suicide prevention expert on causes and treatments.
3) Is it our job simply to reflect reality, or do we have a responsibility to protect our readers and viewers from disturbing images?
We do have a responsibility to protect our readers and viewers from disturbing images, but that does not mean we have to conceal the truth. For example, fair warning is given to viewers and readers before disturbing images are broadcast, and this is perfectly acceptable. However, what is not acceptable is broadcasting images which could cause to distress to the families of those who have been affected, e.g. showing the moment a loved one was killed or the moments after the incident. The same can be applied to covering suicide, we should just reflect the reality of this situation as this would be insensitive to those affected and could risk the ‘Suicide Contagion’ as I mentioned earlier. It is important not to include photos/videos of the location or method of death, or to reveal the contents of a suicide note.
Our responsibility to protect readers and viewers from disturbing images also relates to the concept of moral panics, we as journalists have the power to shape and influence the publics opinions and perceptions, therefore we must take great care to ensure that we do not abuse this power. Luce writes: “Creating a moral panic enhances stigma in society. As a journalist, it is your responsibility to understand how your reporting will affect those that are participating in your story, their families, and also those who are reading. This is particularly so where vulnerable people are concerned. Being a responsible reporter is not about you and your by-line; it means being concerned for the greater good. Be an informed, socially alert and conscientious journalist. Remember, you have a duty of care to members of the public.” (Luce, 2013) (2)
When choosing whether to broadcast or publish disturbing images or footage we should always consider the pros and cons, the potential risks. One way or another we must decide whether the benefits of potentially raising more awareness outweigh the potential backlash which comes from viewers who did not wish to see it. This ties into John Stuart Mill’s theory of Utilitarianism, meaning ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number’. One way or another the decision has to be made and the decision will lie with the editor and writers as to whether raising awareness by showing the content would satisfy the audience more than being hid away from the truth.
(1) Hodges, L.W. (1986). Defining Press Responsibility. In Elliott, D. (ed). Responsible Journalism (pp. 13-31). London: Sage Publications Ltd.
(2) Luce, A., 2013. Moral Panics: Reconsidering Journalism’s Responsibilities.