4. When should suicides be covered?
Journalists are often faced with questions about whether to report suicide and how to report it. The media can play an important role in raising awareness of suicide but sometimes media stories about suicide can also cause harm.
Suicide should be covered when the media is able to provide its audiences with important information that helps to explain the broader issue. It is important for people to be informed about the risk factors of suicide and the importance of taking suicidal thoughts seriously. When covering suicide, providing information about where people can get support is vital.
Arguably, suicide should be covered when it is in the public interest but journalists should be aware of the potential contagion effects when reporting on suicide (Jamieson et al 2003). In 1962 the suicide of Marilyn Monroe was covered in extensive detail because she was a significant public figure and it was of great public interest that she had taken her own life. However, the suicide rate increased dramatically due to the amount of coverage her death received and therefore, a reporter should arguably not include the method and reasons of the suicide because this could potentially give ideas to vulnerable readers who may wish to replicate the act. This theory is also underlined by Gene Foreman (2016), who suggests that including the methods of suicide in a report could result in readers copying these actions.
When reporting on suicide, it is important to cover it accurately and sensitively because this can challenge public misconceptions. As well as this, coverage that focuses on overcoming suicidal thinking can sometimes promote hope and encourage others to seek help. Perhaps most importantly, suicide should be covered as a health issue, as this can help raise awareness and decrease stigma.
Foreman, G., 2016. The Ethical Journalist: Making Responsible Decisions in the Digital Age. Second Edition. New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Jamieson, P., Jamieson, K. and Romer, D., 2003. The Responsible Reporting of Suicide in Print Journalism. American Behavioral Scientist [online], 46 (12), 1643-1660.
5. When we decide to write about suicide, how should we do so?
When we decide to write about suicide, it is vital that we educate the public about this topic and decrease the stigma that is attached to it. According to the World Health Organisation, journalists should avoid language which sensationalises or normalises suicide, or presents it as a solution to problems. Before publishing a story about suicide, it is also important to avoid including a detailed description of the methods used. Madelyn S. Gould (2001) believes that if media professionals were educated about suicide first, particularly contagion, then this would lead to more responsible reporting. She also suggests that the media’s role in educating the public about suicide should be encouraged.
Suicide is a serious topic and this should be reflected in the articles that are published about it, so for this reason journalists should word headlines carefully and take caution when using photographs or video footage. Section 8.16 of the Ofcom Broadcasting Code states that we should not take or broadcast footage of people caught up in emergencies, victims of accidents or those suffering a personal tragedy, so therefore when reporting on suicide, we should do so responsibly.
Particular care should be taken when reporting celebrity suicides, as the stories written about them may influence the behaviour of vulnerable individuals. Therefore, reports should arguably comment on the impact the suicide has had on others, instead of glorifying the celebrity’s death. In addition to this, it is also equally as important to be respectful of people who are bereaved by suicide, as they are often in a fragile state and extremely vulnerable themselves after losing a loved one. As well avoiding detail about the methods used, the World Health Organisation also believes that when reporting on suicide, journalists should take care not to provide detailed information about the site of a suicide, as this may encourage other vulnerable people to end their lives at that particular location.
When writing about suicide, arguably the most important details to include are where people can seek help and to emphasise that they are not alone. The importance of providing information about help services is emphasised by many, including Jane Pirkis and others (2006). As well as offering a lifeline to those who desperately need it, informing people of where to find support also demonstrates how the media can play a responsible role when reporting on suicide.
Gould, M., 2001. Suicide and the Media [online]. New York: Colombia University.
Pirkis, J., Warwick Blood, R., Beautrais, A., Burgess, P. and Skehan, J., 2006. Media Guidelines on the Reporting of Suicide. The Journal of Crisis Intervention and Suicide Prevention [online], 27, 82-87.
6. Is it our job simply to reflect reality, or do we have a responsibility to protect our readers and viewers from disturbing images?
Journalists have a responsibility to report the truth but arguably it is just as important to protect their readers and viewers from disturbing images. Using graphic material has the potential to cause significant distress to the public, and these negative consequences need to be considered before these images are presented in the media.
According to Susan Sontag (2003), “harrowing photographs do not inevitably lose their power to shock. But they are not much help if the task is to understand. Narratives can make us understand. Photographs do something else: they haunt us.” This suggests that although they remain powerful, photographs do not necessarily have to be used by journalists to show reality, and for their readers and viewers to understand certain issues, simply writing about them can be more effective. However, publishing disturbing images is arguably sometimes important and presented in the right way can actually help to inform the public. Christopher Hansen (2008) suggests that it is important that a journalist does not kill that disturbing story or photo but instead presents it in a way that minimizes pain without holding back what the public needs to know.
When disturbing images are held back by the media, there is an argument that journalists are not reflecting the whole of reality. However, by presenting them to the public it is this reality that is likely to cause harm and offence. Section 2 of the Ofcom Broadcasting Code focuses on Harm and Offence and states that any material likely to cause distress must be justified by the context, which includes the editorial content of the programme, the time of broadcast and other factors. Therefore, as there is no definitive rule on what constitutes a disturbing image, editors are responsible for and have the power to decide how much reality the public can manage.
German journalist Simon P. Balzert composed a code of ethics for the use of graphic images which may help to determine whether we should simply reflect reality or actually protect our viewers and readers from potentially offensive material. According to Balzert, it is sometimes important to publish graphic photographs in order to show the true horrors of war. However, perhaps most importantly is the idea that journalists should ensure that the images are not being used solely for their shock or entertainment value. Instead, Balzert claims the photograph should be chosen because it conveys newsworthy information. In order to protect viewers from potentially offensive content, journalists should also explore whether it is possible to avoid publishing the image by conveying the information in an alternative manner.
Therefore, although it is our job to reflect reality, we also have a responsibility to protect our readers and viewers. Sometimes it is necessary to publish a potentially offensive image to report the reality of the situation, but at other times the reality can be portrayed simply through words.
Patterson, P. and Wilkins, L., 2008. Media Ethics: Issues and Cases. Sixth Edition. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Sontag, S., 2003. Regarding the Pain of Others. New York: St. Martin’s Press.