When should suicides be covered?
Whist every death by suicide is a tragedy, it is not necessary for them all to be covered by the media. Raising awareness of suicide is important in society, however there can be negative effects to covering suicide stories.
Firstly, there is a very fine balance between raising awareness of suicide and triggering the ‘Werther effect’, which means a spike in the rate of suicides following a well publicised suicide. This is backed up by the research of Phillips, who “consistently found a strong relationship between reports of suicide in newspapers or on television and a subsequent increase in the suicide rate” (Phillips, 1986 cited by Gould, 2001). The Werther effect is even more prominent when it is a famous celebrity who has committed suicide: “The largest possible copycat effect found was for the well known movie star Marilyn Monroe. During the month of her suicide in August 1962 there were an additional 303 suicides, an increase of 12%. In general however, highly publicised stories increase the national suicide rate by only 2.51% in the month of media coverage” (Stock, 2000). This causes a difficult dilemma for the journalist, as celebrity deaths need to be covered because of the public interest demand, but it is almost guaranteed that this will result in a higher rate of suicides following the reports.
If a journalist makes the decision to cover a suicide, they must first ensure that police have confirmed that the death was a suicide and the family of the victim have been informed. It is vital that the family of the victim do not find out that their relative has committed suicide from the media, for obvious reasons.
Suicides should only be covered when there is a clear public interest in the story. This could be because it is someone in the public eye or as a way to raise awareness of suicide. Unfortunately, multiple suicides take place in the UK every day , which means that not every one can be documented. If they were, suicide reports would become repetitive and there could be a risk that suicide could be normalised within society.
Every report about suicide should contain information on how to get help for people struggling with suicide. This is because suicide reports can act as a trigger for vulnerable readers considering committing suicide (Werther effect), so it is important that help is available to prevent further suicides.
Gould, M.S., 2001. Suicide and the Media. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences [online]. 932, 200-224.
Stack, S., 2000. Media Impacts on Suicide: A Quantitative Review of 293 Findings. Social Science Quarterly [online], 81 (4), 957-971.
When we decide to write about suicide, how should we do so?
It is important for journalists to take care whilst writing suicide reports, as it can be a very sensitive and influential topic for both the deceased family and vulnerable readers. Respect should be shown to the victim’s family, which includes space to grieve and not badgering them for interviews, regardless of the need for extra colour to a story.
When writing about suicide, it is important that the method isn’t included in the report, as research suggests it can be a roadmap to suicide for the audience. This is because vulnerable readers who could be considering suicide, may use the said method as a way of ending their life, as they know it has worked for someone else. It is vital for the media to try and write suicide reports in a way that attempts to counter the Werther effect (or copycat effect) and leaving out the method of suicide is one of the ways to do that. Jamieson and others agree with this, discouraging “detailed accounts of method and reporting that glorifies, romanticizes, or otherwise gives readers the impression that suicide is a solution to life problems” (Jamieson et al, 2003). The IPSO code also recognises this, stating that journalists should avoid excessive detail of the method used.
Similarly to the method, the site of suicide should also be left out of reports. If the site is reported, especially if it is in public, then vulnerable readers may have ideas to use that site for their own suicide.
It is also vital that reporters are careful with their words when reporting on suicide. If words are used that produce positive connotations of suicide to the reader, they may see it as the right thing to do. This is backed up by Coleman, who says: “The media must be more aware of the power of their words. Using language like “successful” suicides and bridge jumpers, and “failed” murder-suicides, for example, clearly suggest to viewers and readers that someone should keep trying again until they succeed” (Coleman, 2004). The media must be especially careful not to use the phrase ‘committed suicide’, as it suggests that the victim has been guilty of wrongdoing or has committed a crime, which isn’t a suitable phrase for a mental health tragedy.
The inclusion of details about how to get help on suicide is a necessity in reports. After reading a report, people may feel especially vulnerable, so directions on how to get help is vital.
Coleman, L., 2004. The Copycat Effect: How the Media and Popular Culture Trigger the Mayhem in Tomorrow’s Headlines [online]. New York: Pocket Books
Jamieson, P., Jamieson, K. H. and Romer, D., 2003. The responsible reporting of suicide in print journalism. American Behavioral Scientist [online], 46 (12), 1643–1660.
Is it our job simply to reflect reality, or do we have a responsibility to protect our readers and viewers from disturbing images?
Deciding whether to protect images from the public or publish them is a very difficult ethical consideration for journalists. It is a journalist’s natural instinct to want to report news in the most accurate and thorough form, using pictures to get the most colour out of their story.
It is important that the pubic are not misled by the media, so any decision to refrain from publishing images should be taken with a lot of thought and concluded with a justified reason. The Ofcom Broadcasting Code states news, in whatever form, should be reported with due accuracy, so if disturbing images are protected from the audience, it should not effect the accuracy of a story.
It could be argued that publishing disturbing images can open the eyes of viewers to the harsh realities of the world, thus sparking a positive reaction. This reaction could come in the form of a donation (for example Children in Need) or a petition/campaign. This is discussed by Höijer (2004), who states: “Pictures in the media of suffering people may really invite the audience to experience moral compassion at a distance.”
However, frequently showing disturbing images to the public can be counter-productive by draining emotion out of the viewing. As Tester (1994) believes: “It is quite likely that the media do not serve so as to sensitise us to moral problems. Quite the contrary; the media rather tend to have an anaesthetic effect. It is perhaps not unreasonable to suggest that the media mean the destruction of the moral values of solidarity.”
Höijer (2004) also notes this side of the argument, explaining how too much media coverage of disturbing images can lead to ‘compassion fatigue’ – where the large number of reports on suffering and the repetitive and stereotyped character of the depictions may tire the audience out.
It can be argued in conclusion that the duty of the journalist to report news accurately should be their number one priority. Images should only be refrained from publication if they are extreme to the point that there is a good chance viewers may be left disturbed after witnessing them. Journalists should always have a disclaimer (e.g. ‘you may find the following images disturbing’) over sensitive or controversial images, which would give viewers enough time to switch off if circumstances prevent them watching, for example if children are present.
Höijer, B., 2004. The discourse of global compassion: The audience and media reporting of human suffering. Media, Culture & Society, 26 (4), 513–531.
Tester, K., 1994. Media Culture and Morality. London: Routledge.