Reporting on suicide

I’ve held off blogging on the media seminar held recently by Suicide Prevention Information New Zealand (SPINZ) because I had such strong feelings about it I needed time to mull it over.

It’s already been dissected by fellow students Anne Cornish and Paul McBeth, and speaker at the Auckland forum Jim Tucker.

In Wellington, Dr Jane Pirkis presented research from 100 global studies which suggested that reporting on suicide can, under some circumstances, influence people to kill themselves.  Basically, if a young, unemployed blond man kills himself by shooting, and the media publishes these details, then research shows we can expect an increase in numbers of young, unemployed blond men killing themselves by shooting immediately after the media coverage.

Our suicide reporting regime in Aotearoa is governed by the Coroner’s Act, which limits reporting to name, address, occupation and the fact of self-inflicted death.  The Ministry of Health guidelines for reporting on suicide, designed to minimise harm, were written in 1999, and so are not up to speed with changes in the media – in particular the widening spread of online media, including social networking sites.  

Fairfax Group Editor Paul Thompson discussed why being told how to report suicides presented problems for New Zealand media – but his arguments in favour of when suicide reporting should be ‘opened up’ were, for me, unconvincing. 

I just do not believe, cynical as I am, that the choice over which suicides need to be covered, in a competitive media market-place in which newspapers are businesses, is not driven by the bottom-line of profit.

Public interest?

Uncovering the truth? 

Resisting state control of information? 

Nope, for me coverage like this from the Sunday News is solely a profit opportunity.

And this kind of bottom-line brutalises those reported on, and, if research is to be believed, increases the likelihood that those living with depression will attempt suicide – and ‘complete the attempt’.

Which brings me to my last point – and here I do agree with Paul Thompson – some language being used around suicide merely confuses the issue without protecting anyone from harm.  We were being asked not to describe people who kill themselves as having been ‘successful’ in their suicide attempt.  I can see the logic for this – but I can also see problems with working out how to write about it.  Have people ‘suicided’, or is ‘self-inflicted death’ more appropriate?  Did the person ‘do suicide’?

At the moment we report a bizarre ‘there were no suspicious circumstances’ when we mean someone killed themselves.  Paul Thompson argues that this does no one any favours because we don’t know what it means.

And in family violence cases, where men kill women and then kill themselves, it actually obscures how common murder-suicides are in violent relationships – as well as who the ‘killer’ is – a fact we could well do with knowing more about, particularly since violence against women continues to be minimised in much media coverage.

I also have a problem with the suggestion that the media need to present suicide as a poor choice.  

In pre-journo life, I worked with a woman who used to set fire to herself about every three months when her recall of a decade of rapes by her father grew too much.  When he was released from prison after 8 years, the first thing he did was visit her at home and rape her again.  She killed herself, by setting herself alight, and locking all the doors to her house so no one could rescue her.

I would not be prepared to represent her choice as ‘poor’.  

The fact is, here in Aotearoa about 500 people kill themselves every year.  The media’s role in examining this, for me, needs to include underlying causes such as depression and histories of abuse, trends and risk factors, services available and warning signs, individual people’s stories if that is what they want. 

I cannot see any argument for more in-depth coverage beyond these issues.  And if that puts me in a difficult position in terms of being a journalist, so be it.



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