Reporting and portrayal of suicide
Full resource book
Reporting suicide and mental illness:
A Mindframe resource for media professionals
Quick reference card for producing a story on suicide
While suicide is a relatively rare cause of death, it affects many people within the community and the impacts can be widespread. Suicide and suicide prevention are legitimate topics of public interest and research shows that media reporting of suicide in Australia is extensive.
Suicide is a complex issue and journalists are often faced with questions about whether to report and how to report. While the media can play a powerful role in raising awareness of suicide and suicide prevention, media stories about suicide also have the potential to do harm.
Media codes of practice reinforce the need to proceed with caution when considering reports about suicide attempts and deaths, but do not discourage stories that are legitimately in the public interest or explore the broader issue of suicide.
The following ‘issues to consider’ have been developed to support media professionals to make informed choices when reporting suicide, and should be used in conjunction with media codes of practice and editorial policies. There are also considerations for reporting euthanasia and self-harm within this chapter.
HELPFUL WAYS TO PRESENT INFORMATION
Suicide is an important issue of community concern. While there is limited research evidence to support positive outcomes related to media reporting of suicide, it is generally agreed that:
• Media play an important role in reporting about the broader issue of suicide, which includes analysis of policy, practice, research, rates and trends, and other areas of public interest
• Covering suicide sensitively and accurately can challenge public misconceptions and myths, increase community awareness and encourage discussion and prevention activities
• It is helpful when the community is informed about the risk factors of suicide, including warning signs, the importance of taking suicidal thoughts seriously and providing information about where people can get support.
• Coverage that focuses on personal stories about overcoming suicidal thinking can promote hope and may encourage others to seek help
• Reporting that focuses on suicide as a health and community issue helps to increase community awareness and decrease stigma
• Reports that show the impact that suicide has on individuals and communities can increase understanding about the experiences of those affected by suicide.
- Decide whether to report on a suicide death
- Reduce the prominence of the story
- Modify or remove information that may increase risk
- Take care when interviewing family and friends
- What about online?
- Apply specific cultural considerations
- Reporting celebrity suicide
- Ensure the death has been confirmed as a suicide by official sources so that the report does not fuel speculation or interfere with ongoing investigations
- Where possible, obtain informed consent from appropriate relatives or close friends before identifying the person who has died.
- Assess whether the story is clearly in the public interest. It can be useful to consult with experts for advice about the impacts of reporting a specific case.
- Consider how many stories about suicide have been run recently as research suggests that a succession of stories about suicide can reinforce suicidal behaviour for people who are vulnerable.
Research suggests that people who are vulnerable to suicide may be drawn to stories about suicide and that the prominence of these stories may increase risk.
Where possible, consider minimising the prominence of a story. This can be done by placing a story on the inside pages of a newspaper or further down the order of broadcast reports. It is also preferable to avoid using the word ‘suicide’ in a headline and key search terms as these can attract vulnerable people to the story.
|Stories profiling someone who has died by suicide appear to carry the greatest risk, as people who are vulnerable may identify with the person in the report. That is why there are specific implications for how the reporting of individual deaths is handled. The same approaches to suicide deaths should be made to stories about suicide attempts and those that may include someone talking about theirs or another person’s suicidal behaviour.|
- Disclosing explicit content from a suicide note may impact on vulnerable people, including those bereaved. This information alone, without context, may not tell the whole story.
- Limit promotion of public memorials, including online memorial pages, as these may inadvertently reinforce suicide as a desired outcome for people at risk of suicide.
- Choose more general images of the person rather than images of the funeral, grieving family or memorials as these may glorify the death. Ask for permission from the family before using images.
- Minimise details about the death including method and location, use appropriate language and promote help-seeking information.
Stories about suicide and suicide bereavement can provide opportunities for increased awareness and discussion about the impact of suicide. However, people bereaved by suicide may be vulnerable or at risk of suicide themselves.
In the period immediately after a death, grieving family and friends may have reduced capacity to consent to an interview or to consider the short-term and long-term impact of their involvement. Respect people’s grief and privacy and consider delaying interviews with people in these situations.
Specific tips on preparing for and conducting an interview with someone bereaved are currently in development. Please contact us for more information.
|While evidence is still emerging, recommendations should also be applied to the online environment, including social media. Given the instant nature and potential reach of online posts, implementing procedures to monitor and manage message boards for posts that may be harmful or from people in crisis is recommended.|
- Naming or depicting an image of a person who has died can cause great distress in some communities. Seek advice before using the name or image of an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person who is deceased.
- Place consumer advice before a broadcast to alert audiences that the program may feature someone who is deceased.
- Remember that no one person can speak for all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Stories benefit from canvassing a range of comments from the mental health and suicide prevention sectors and those with connections to the local community.
- Be aware that terms used for suicide and mental illness may not exist or translate easily when interviewing people from a culturally and linguistically diverse background.
Further information about cultural considerations can be found on the page 'Priority Population Groups'.
|Celebrity suicides are newsworthy and will almost always be reported. Coverage of suicide by a celebrity can glamourise and normalise suicide, with research showing it can prompt imitation by vulnerable people.
Given the potential impact of the story, ensure the death is not reported as a suicide until confirmed by official sources. This may help reduce speculation, which can be harmful and hard to manage.
To minimise risk, ensure the story does not glamourise suicide or provide specific details about the method or location of death. Instead consider focusing on the wastefulness of the death, its impact on family and friends, general risk factors for suicide and help-seeking options for people who may be vulnerable.
Be mindful that reports about the death may come up in other contexts (a second celebrity death) or around a significant date (movie release, anniversary etc.) Care should be taken each time the death is reported or referred to.
- Minimise details about method and location
- Place the story in context and ensure accuracy and balance
- Consider the language you use
|Issue||Options to consider|
|Reporting explicit detail about method has been linked to increases in both use of that method and overall suicide rates.
||If it is important to mention the method, discuss in general terms only, e.g. Use 'cocktail of drugs' instead of detailing the type and quantity of medications taken.
|Reporting uncommon or new methods of suicide can lead to imitation as well as a lasting impact on rates.
||Remove specific details about new or unusual methods of suicide and references to ways further information can be obtained about these methods, e.g. Online.
|Describing locations of suicide may promote these to vulnerable people and increase the frequency of attempts at these sites.
||If it is important to refer to a location, describe in general terms only. e.g. Use 'at a nearby park' instead of detailing the exact location. In advocacy stories (e.g. about a specific site), limit the number of times the location is described in detail or mentioned in each report.
|Images or footage that depicts the method or location of a suicide can lead to imitation by vulnerable people.
||Avoid the use of detailed or dramatic photographs or footage, e.g. Images of people standing on the ledges or implements used in a suicide attempt.
- Take care not to imply that the death was spontaneous or preceded, by a single event as research suggests most people who die by suicide have underlying risk factors, including mental health issues, a drug-related illness or other social influences.
- It’s important that the media are able to present the most accurate information about suicide to the community. Information about accessing and interpreting suicide data is available from the Mindframe website.
- A story may be improved by obtaining the views of suicide prevention experts, who can assist by providing comment, accurate interpretation of statistics and placing situations or campaigns in context.
FINDING ACCURATE INFORMATION
Additional information you can find on this website includes:
• Facts and statistics that can be used in a story to provide context
• Story sources and contacts for organisations which can provide comment or further information
• Evidence and evaluation information with links to the international research about media and suicide
• Program team details so media can access immediate support and advice from Mindframe
• Links to the SANE Media Centre, which also provides guidance about reporting and portrayal of suicide.
Certain ways of describing suicide can alienate members of the community or inadvertently contribute to suicide being presented as glamorous or an option for dealing with problems. Some suggestions are provided below.
|Language that presents suicide as a desirable outcome
||'successful suicide', 'unsuccessful suicide'
||'took their own life', 'ended their own life', 'died by suicide'
|Phrases that associate suicide with crime or sin
||'commit suicide', 'committed suicide'
||'died by suicide', 'took their own life'
|Language that glamourises a suicide attempt
||'failed suicide', 'suicide bid'
||'made an attempt on his life', 'suicide attempt', 'non-fatal attempt'
|Phrases that sensationalise suicide
'Higher rates', increasing rates', 'concerning rates'
|Gratuitous use of the term 'suicide' out of context
||'suicide mission', 'political suicide', 'suicide pass (in sport)'
||Refrain from using the word 'suicide' out of context
While there is limited research addressing media and the reporting of euthanasia and self-harm, the available research suggests that media professionals should consider codes of practice and guidelines for reporting suicide, with some additional recommendations.
- Recommendations for reporting euthanasia as it relates to suicide
- Recommendations for reporting self-harm
Euthanasia is a complex and legitimate issue to be covered by the media. Research looking at the potential link between reporting euthanasia and suicidal behaviour is limited, with only a few studies available. There is no clear evidence that talking about euthanasia more broadly is associated with suicidal behaviour. However, some studies do suggest that there may be an association between reporting euthanasia methods and increases in suicide. With this in mind, consider the below recommendations.
Minimise detailed description of methods
Euthanasia methods are often the same as for suicide. Removing explicit method details can minimise the risk of copycat behaviour. If the method is the story focus (e.g. legalisation of a method), consider removing explicit details (e.g. dosage and accessibility) and using more general descriptions (e.g. lethal medications).
Ensure accuracy and context
To reduce the impact on vulnerable people, it is helpful to distinguish between suicide and euthanasia. Providing context (e.g. terminal illness) may reduce the likelihood of vulnerable people identifying with the story and the risk of copycat behaviour.
Minimise use of language associated with suicide
Prominent stories about euthanasia may attract people vulnerable to suicide. Where possible, remove the word ‘suicide’ or ‘assisted suicide’ from the headline, lead or key search terms for the story.
Add 24/7 crisis support services
Adding help-seeking information provides options for crisis support to vulnerable people who may be adversely impacted by a euthanasia story. You can find a list of crisis support contacts here.
Self-harm is a deliberate act of self-inflicted injury intended to cause physical pain as a means of managing difficult emotions, or as a way of communicating distress to others, but not to result in death.
Self-harm and suicide are distinct and separate acts although some people who self-harm are at an increased risk of suicide. Acts of self-harm should always be taken seriously as can be physically dangerous and may indicate an underlying mental health issue. Consider the following recommendations:
Minimise detailed description of methods
If it is important to the story, discuss the method in general terms such as ‘self-harm’ or ‘self-injury’. Explicit depictions of self-harm have been linked to copycat behaviour and methods of self-harm are often similar or the same as methods of suicide.
Ensure accuracy and balance
Balanced reporting that provides insight into the realities of self-harm can increase community understanding and reduce the stigma associated with self-harm.
Reduce the prominence of a story
Place a story on the inside pages of a newspaper or further down the order of broadcast reports and remove ‘self-harm’ from headlines.
Take care not to perpetuate inaccurate stereotypes
This includes stereotypes such as that people self-harm to manipulate others or situations, attract attention, feign suicide, or belong to a subculture as this can lead to negative community attitudes and stigma.
Use appropriate language
Take care not to use colloquialisms or terminology out of context. Referring to self-harm as a ‘fad’ or ‘phase’ can minimise the seriousness of the issue. Separate a person from their behaviour, as using labels to describe people as ‘cutters’ or ‘self-harmers’ can lead to stigma.
Include help-seeking information
This provides support options for people who may be distressed or prompted to seek help following the story. For links to help-seeking information, click here.
Please contact the Mindframe project team if you need further assistance:
Telephone: 02 4924 6904
Fax: 02 4924 6909