1) When should suicides be covered?
Suicide remains an extremely delicate topic of discussion today, as many people may not want to talk about such subjects or may feel it is too personal to discuss on a public platform (i.e. Newspapers). Journalists are then faced with the question of when and how to report on suicides as it could either be beneficial in raising awareness and providing helplines, or cause harm.
There are two key times when suicide should be covered. These are when there is opportunity to provide guidance and information to viewers and in a matter of public interest. In regard to the former, should a journalist feel they are able to report on the matter of suicide without any harmful effects and instead provide help, this is when a suicide should be reported on. Harmful effects include that of copycat suicides as a result of the reporting of a suicide. This being reinforced by Gould et al (2003) who argued there is evidence suggesting ‘suicide is contagious’.
A majority of suicides that are reported in the media are that of celebrities. This can however pose huge ethical issues as studies have found that these reports are “5.27 times more likely to report a copycat effect than studies based on non-celebrity suicides” (Cheng et al. 2007) The ethical issue here is finding the balance between giving the public information on the death of the celebrity without giving vulnerable individuals ideas on how they themselves could use the same method to take their own life.
Thus, it is crucial that journalists relay the information of the suicide but also provide helplines and information to avoid more deaths.
Gould, M. et al., 2003. Media contagion and suicide among the young. American Behavioural Scientist [online], 46 (9), 1269-1279.
Cheng, A. T. A., Hawton, K., Lee, C. T. C. and Chen, T. H. H., 2007. The influence of media reporting of the suicide of a celebrity on suicide rates: A population-based study. International Journal of Epidemiology, 36 (6), 1229–1234.
2) When we decide to write about suicide, how should we do so?
Reporting on such an important but upsetting subject should be done so with utmost compassion and consideration. The reporter must take into mind the ethical issues surrounding the subject when reporting on it as it is very possible to cause harm to both viewers and relatives of the deceased. To ensure that any ethical problems are avoided, journalists must adhere to the Editorial codes which state that reporters must avoid excessive detail of suicide methods used when covering such topics, it must be done with sympathy and discretion and publication to be handled sensitively.
“The media must report responsibly, have some consideration for the deceased, but (probably most importantly) the media has a role to play in educating citizens about suicide.” – Ann Luce
One of the main issues with reporting on suicide if the effects it can have on younger generations. This was pointed out by Pirkis & Blood who suggested young people may be particularly susceptible to the effects of irresponsible suicide reporting. (Pirkis & Blood, 2010) Thus, it is imperative that when writing such stories, journalists must take into account that the way in which they word their piece and what information they put in can have significant traumatic impacts. They not only have to consider the trauma of the family but also the potential for others to imitate the methods used.
Luce, A., 2016. The Bridgend Suicides: Suicide and the Media. London: Palgrave MacMillan.
Pirkis, j.,& Blood, r.W. (2010). Suicide and the news and information media: a critical review. Canberra, Australia: Commonwealth of Australia
3) Is it our job simply to reflect reality, or do we have a responsibility to protect our readers and viewers from disturbing images?
The media’s job is to show the public what is happening in the world in all areas of news. Due to conflicts, both past and present, there is a lot of disturbing footage and stories that must be reported as they are in the public interest. However, some footage may be extremely damaging or traumatic to some viewers and so poses an ethical issue. Zelizer (2010) argued that disturbing images ‘provide reasoned information but engage their audiences primarily through the emotions’. This poses the question of whether journalism is primarily there to create a reaction or an emotion from its audiences. Indeed, such images from Syria and the more recent Aleppo photos have created a global outrage and some have acted to help those in need.
When considering showing harmful or disturbing images in a report, a journalist must consider the wider implications for society and its individuals. “Creating a moral panic enhances stigma in society… 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)
Journalists must weigh up the pros and cons of showing disturbing images or footage. The audience has a right to know the true extent of what is happening and a decision must be made of whether informing the audience of such extents of ongoing war and violence is necessary and better than blanketing or softening such harsh news.
Luce, A., 2013. Moral Panics: Reconsidering Journalism’s Responsibilities.
Zelizer, B., 2010. About to Die: How News Images Move the Public [online]. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.