The only way is ethics: The difficult business of reporting suicide

Should journalists be expected to follow guidelines over death by suicide when the cause of death is uncertain?

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The Independent Online

Improved media reporting has been one of the factors in reducing the taboo around mental illness. The same is true of suicide, in which a disturbed mind is almost always part of the backdrop.

A variety of charities and suicide prevention groups have played an important role in better explaining how the media can be influential in helping the public to understand these sensitive subjects. This has put an onus on journalists to consider the direct and indirect effects of coverage on individuals.

Some of the issues are general and go to wider representations about mental health. Psychological illness should not, fairly obviously, be the subject of jokes. The media should also take care not to imply there are intrinsic links between mental disorders and violence. For instance, just because an individual with schizophrenia commits a murder, does not mean all schizophrenics are a danger to society.

When it comes to suicide, it is important that we should try to unravel the complex motives that usually lie behind such a desperate act. It is almost never the case that a person takes their own life simply because they have lost their job or because their partner has left them. Such factors may contribute to a troubled state of mind, but very infrequently provide a straightforward answer as to why a death by suicide has occurred.

Perhaps the most discussed issue about suicide reporting is the so-called “copycat effect”. Thanks to the work of researchers such as the Australian expert Jane Pirkis, there is now compelling evidence that detailed descriptions of a suicide can contribute to a decision to act similarly on the part of another suicidal person.

But what about cases where it remains unclear whether suicide was the cause of death? Last week’s inquest into the death of businessman Scot Young concluded a narrative verdict: foul play was ruled out, but there was insufficient evidence to determine that he had intended to kill himself when he fell from an upper-floor window. Should we, nevertheless, keep details to a minimum?

I’m not convinced the same strict requirements can apply. After all, the rules do not exist simply to prevent individuals from finding out about specific modes of death, otherwise there would be any number of accidental deaths on which we could not fully report.

Rather, it is the emotional connection between the reader and the person on whose death we are reporting which is key. A troubled individual may identify with the circumstances of somebody who has deliberately taken their own life; and that sense of personal association may inform their own decision to take the same course. But if the deceased did not intend to kill themselves – or, at least, if the circumstances remain unclear – the sense of shared identity is much less powerful.

 

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A reader expressed concern at a recent article which reported on research suggesting that men working for female bosses become assertive to protect their masculinity. He argued that we should have included the title of the research paper in our piece so that readers could easily find and examine it for themselves.

There would, of course, have been nothing wrong in doing so – though at 15 words it wasn’t exactly pithy. Nevertheless, we referred to the journal in which the research had been published and the name of the lead academic. Google may be a brutalistic monolith but it comes in handy on such occasions.

In any case, when space is at a premium  it seems to me preferable to summarise  the findings of research than to  concentrate on its title. But perhaps I’m being overly assertive.

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