6 Jun 2014

How Journalists Should Write About Suicide

By Courtney Robinson
An image from the Border Mail campaign
An image from the Border Mail campaign

Covering suicide risks encouraging copycat incidents, but it can also help prevention. Courtney Robinson has a look at the outlets who get it right.

Suicide is a big and often ignored problem in Australia. Our country has one of the highest rates of suicide in the developed word and it remains the leading cause of death for Australians aged 15-24.

But reporting on suicide in a way that does not put more people at risk is a difficult thing to do. The Australian media mostly responds to the challenges of suicide reporting by taking a position of silence. This view, which originated in the 1700s based on the theory that coverage influences at-risk individuals, is a simplistic assertion by modern standards. With seven suicide deaths in Australia every day it is no longer tenable to omit suicide from public discourse.

Over the last two years, local examples have demonstrated it is possible to approach reporting in a way that minimises the risk of harm while increasing the effectiveness or responses and preventative programs.

In August 2012, The Border Mail ran a 7-day awareness campaign challenging the silence and the stigma. The reports presented the complexities suicide involves including the inevitable, chaotic aftermath. The palpable anguish of Albury family the Bakers, who lost their 15-year-old daughter Mary, are among the excruciating portraits of grief. Sharing this perspective promotes the powerful message that the victims of suicide extend far beyond the perpetrator.

The Walkley award-winning series of reports explored the lack of mental health services in the local area, and actively lobbied for an installation of headspace in Albury-Wodonga. This request was green-lit in June last year, when the Rudd government announced funding for fifteen new centres nationally. Ashley Argoon received the 2013 Walkley Award for Young Journalist of the Year for her work on the campaign. Argoon made up a slice of the editorial team who skillfully navigated the topic with professionalism, sensitivity, and hard-hitting realities. Their campaign is a stellar example of breaking the silence.

Earlier this month, Mindframe released guidelines for Australian journalists on how to report suicide. While they recommend framing celebrity deaths through the ‘wastefulness’ of the act, the impact on family and friends, and general risk factors, there remains a slightly interrogative air challenging the newsworthiness of suicide reporting. The guidelines caution; “research suggests that a succession of stories about suicide can reinforce suicidal behavior for people that are vulnerable”. However, there is also evidence which suggests social contagion is a risk that is contingent on how the suicide is reported.

The death of Nirvana singer Kurt Cobain two decades ago is a famous counter-example of social contagion. Despite fears his suicide would provoke copycats, the opposite was true. Rates actually decreased in the weeks following. Evaluating the media’s response two years after Cobain’s death, academic researchers in the Journal of Suicide and Life-Threatening Behaviour concluded the media had successfully advocated a message, which portrayed suicide as wasteful and helped draw attentions to alternatives. Their findings indicate that contagion is predominantly fueled by romantic and sensationalist coverage; not by the mere existence of the discussion.

It is the duty of the media to identify prisms through which suicide can be sensibly reported upon. Research indicates the ‘mastery of crisis’ model can have positive impacts upon vulnerable individuals. Benedict Carey, writing in The New York Times, identified the value in publicly discussing attempts at ending one’s life in the broader context of suicide prevention. Survivors of suicide attempts can restore hope in individuals who are considering the act, however minor its quantity.

Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald in 2011, Peter FitzSimons profiled Nellie Bishop, a woman who jumped from notorious Sydney suicide spot The Gap in 1923, and was saved by a rogue wave. She went on to marry, have eight children and passed away in 1988 at the age of 90. FitzSimons later remarked, “In 25 years of writing for the SMH, I don’t think I have ever had a greater, nor more poignant response than this piece.”

Earlier this year, Mindframe held a roundtable event exploring the risks, challenges and opportunities regarding suicide prevention and social media. Innovation and collaboration were identified as key to progress. The development of suicide prevention smartphone apps is a case in point.

Media outlets can assist by running stories related to intervention and prevention. A Northcote Leader story by Julia Irwin on a local psychologist’s development of an app called ‘R U Suicidal?’ which aims to access vulnerable individuals in fringe groups, such as gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender young people, is a good example.

So too was the 2012 4 Corners story ‘There Is No 3G In Heaven’. The report focused on the crisis of youth suicide in Victoria and the response of local teenagers, who set up a Facebook group to communicate with and comfort vulnerable individuals.

Sadly, the Australian media is not in short supply of opportunities to publicly discuss mental health and suicide, something that most often occurs after the death of a well-known public figure or celebrity, as seen following the deaths of television personality Charlotte Dawson and fashion designer L’Wren Scott earlier in the year.

In response to Dawson’s passing, commentator Helen Razer noted in a piece for The Drum, “we live with great delusion as producers and consumers of media that as long as we talk about something, that something will no longer be a problem”. It is absolutely true that we must identify ways for a public discourse to constructively evolve. Unfortunately, it is equally delusional to assume silence or muted coverage of suicide will resolve the issue.

If you're having issues with mental health or depression, you can call Lifeline on 13 14 11, or visit their website. You can also visit beyondblue here.

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Posted Wednesday, June 11, 2014 - 22:28

An Act of the ultimate selfishness.