The Big Question: Should the media stop reporting the suicides in and around Bridgend?
Why are we asking this now?
Grieving parents of the 17 young people from the south Wales town who have taken their lives in the past 13 months have begun blaming media coverage for fuelling the deaths. Despite official denials of a link between the suicides, some papers have reported claims that social networking websites have romanticised the deaths, thereby encouraging others. Papers have speculated about an "internet cult", and labelled Bridgend the "death town".
Who is blaming the media?
Sharon Pritchard , mother of 15-year-old Nathaniel Pritchard, who apparently killed himself earlier this month, described how she had been hounded by reporters wanting pictures and details of her son. "[The media] have glamorised ways of taking your life as a way of getting attention without fully realising the tragic consequences," she said. "Media coverage put the idea into Nathaniel's head. We never believed his death was linked to other deaths and never believed there was an internet pact. We are certain it never had anything to do with living in Bridgend."
Is she alone?
By no means. Assistant chief constable Dave Morris, who is leading a review of the deaths, said this week that media reporting was influencing young people in the town. "I have noticed an increase in sensationalist reporting and the fact that Bridgend is becoming stigmatised. The link between the deaths isn't the internet – it is the way the media is reporting the news." His view was backed by Madeleine Moon, Labour MP for Bridgend. "The media is part of the problem, and I ask them to be part of the solution," she said. "Give friends and families the space they need."
Why is there such concern about the reporting?
Because suicide is catching – especially among the young. The copycat suicide is a well-known phenomenon, described in scores of academic studies. It is known in medical circles as the Werther effect, after Goethe's novel of 1774, The Sorrows of Young Werther, in which a young artist shoots himself after an ill-fated love affair. Its publication triggered a series of suicides by the same method across Europe which led to its being banned in some countries.
The Centre for Suicide Research at Oxford University has reviewed 90 international studies assessing the media portrayal of suicide, 30 of which examined the impact of newspaper reports. In 21 cases there was evidence that the reports led to an increase in suicides. The biggest risk comes from reports that describe the method of suicide. Victims are also attracted by the prospect of fame, however brief, when their deaths are reported.
Research shows that copycat victims tend to come from similar backgrounds and are at greatest risk if they know other victims. Studies have even shown a dose-response relationship between the intensity of reporting and the number of suicides that follow. Celebrity suicides, such as that of Kurt Cobain in 1994, are the worst for triggering clusters – it has been estimated that they are 14 times more likely to provoke copycat deaths than are the suicides of unknown people.
Is there a code of practice governing reporting of suicide?
Yes. The Press Complaints Commission's editors' code contains detailed guidance on taste and decency, on avoiding the publication of gratuitous pictures or material and on intrusion into grief and shock. In June 2006, the guidance was tightened to include a new sub-clause, reading: "When reporting suicide, care should be taken to avoid excessive detail about the method used." The change was made in response to evidence from the Samaritans and other groups about the triggers for copycat suicides.
Has the code been observed?
Not entirely. In October 2007, the Wigan Evening Post was censured by the PCC for its coverage of the death of a teacher who had electrocuted himself. The PCC ruled that the paper's report of the death had contained "too much detail", and there was "a danger that sufficient information was included to spell out to others how to carry out such a suicide." The Samaritans saw this as a positive move, indicating that the PCC was determined to enforce more sensitive reporting.
Sir Christopher Meyer, chairman of the PCC, this week urged the public to report articles about the Bridgend suicides "which in their view are either insensitive or which provide such excessive detail". Papyrus, the charity for the prevention of young suicides, criticised coverage for featuring "sensationalist headlines, and big pictures often of an attractive girl, that glamorised their suicide".
Is anyone calling for a ban on reporting the Bridgend suicides?
Yes. On 5 February, Papyrus demanded an end to media coverage of the tragedy. Anne Parry, the chairwoman, said: "We believe there is nothing further to be gained [from media coverage]. We are seriously concerned any more media coverage would exacerbate the current state of affairs with disastrous results. At worst it could lead to further suicide attempts. We are asking media please do not draw further attention to this situation."
Yesterday, Ms Parry said her aim at the time had been to "defuse the media roller coaster" which "risked whipping up a state of hysteria" among the public. "We needed a period of calm," she said. But she added that "important issues have been raised, not least the fact that the media are actively adjudicating themselves. Papyrus hopes the current discussion will lead to more sensitive reporting of suicide in the future."
Did other charities support the call?
No. The Samaritans rejected the demands as impractical and unhelpful. "We need responsible reporting rather than no reporting," a spokesperson said. Although some reporting had been insensitive and sensationalist, there had been positive benefits, she said. "Putting suicide in the spotlight helps focus attention and resources on it, and greater understanding of its complexity helps to destigmatise it."
How can copycat suicides be reduced?
The Samaritans says suicides should not be romanticised, permanent memorials should be discouraged, suicide notes should not be disclosed and excessive detail should be avoided. Sensitive reporting can help by dispelling common misconceptions about suicide, such as that people who attempt to take their own lives are beyond help or, conversely, need not be taken seriously. Someone who makes a cry for help should never be ignored.
Is the press making the tragedy worse?
* There is evidence that media coverage can promote copycat suicides, especially in young people
* Grieving parents and relatives are being hounded by reporters, adding to their distress
* The town of Bridgend is being stigmatised for its poor quality of life and high risks posed to the young
* The disturbing number of suicides among young people in the town demands sensitive investigation and honest comment
* The extensive media interest means that attention and resources are focused on the problem
* Publicity about suicide helps to dispel misconceptions and to encourage those in distress to seek help
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