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May 18, 2009 | by  | in Features |
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Quiet pages: the reporting of suicide in New Zealand’s news media

‘The code’

Death was not suspicious. No one else was sought in connection. Not natural causes. And the ‘s’ word.

Former journalist Alan Samson, who now lectures in journalism at Massey University and is a member of the Press Council, doesn’t believe these code words work.

“The suicide is either worth reporting or it is not. Reporters should not engage in asides.”

Commonwealth Press Union chairman Tim Pankhurst, who recently left the position of editor at The Dominion Post to become the New Zealand Press Association’s chief executive, agrees code words are only masking the issue. “At least once a week you will come across the code: ‘died suddenly, missed by their mates’, and you ask, what could have led a person to commit this terrible act?”

“You look at the way suicides are reported overseas, they’re often incredibly graphic. Here, you are not allowed to say so and so committed suicide, and you’ll see this code that’s used, you know, ‘a body was found in the park, police said there were no suspicious circumstances’…”

The Press is one of the few newspapers in the country which refers to self-inflicted deaths as ‘suspected suicides’, while others avoid the term in favour of code words, until after a death is found by a coroner to be self-inflicted.

In an opinion piece in The Dominion Post in 2005 entitled ‘Media, suicide and euphemisms’, Canterbury University School of Political Science and Communications head Jim Tully discussed why the media never uses the ‘s’ word. “The explanation lies with the Coroners Act 1988 (updated in 2006)… which severely constrains media reporting of suicides,” he wrote, noting that there was considerable variation between the information different coroners would release.

Mr Tully said health and media professionals were at loggerheads over whether reporting on suicides was a danger to public safety, with the media disputing “any presumption that non-disclosure is in the best interests of society”, and preferring to self-regulate than to follow guidelines developed by outside agencies.

The rules

The media’s reporting of suicide is, in essence, ruled over by the coroners, who have the power to release details following their findings in suicide inquests. That power is enshrined in law, under section 71 of the Coroners Act 2006, which says no person can make particulars of a death public if there is reasonable cause to believe the death was self-inflicted, or, without a coroner’s authority if no inquiry into the death has been completed. The section has further guidelines on what can be reported once a coroner has found a death to be self-inflicted.

Journalists require a coroner’s permission to make public any details aside from the deceased’s name, address and occupation, and the fact their death was found to be self-inflicted, but other details may be released if it’s in the public interest, and unlikely to be detrimental to the public’s safety.

When the law was updated from the 1988 version, journalists and media bodies appealed to parliament to give them more freedom in their reporting, arguing that if anything, wider reportage could lower the suicide rate.

Parliament said no.

Victoria University media law lecturer Steven Price says the law is a “pretty severe” restriction on freedom of expression, and not entirely justified under the Bill of Rights Act 1990.

“There has to be a really good reason to believe that this sort of reporting is actually going to do harm to the public. And as I understand it the social science evidence is quite mixed about that. I’m not sure it actually reaches that threshold to justify the restriction we have in our law.” Mr Pankhurst believes the legislation is “unduly restrictive”.

“I don’t accept that greater reporting of suicides will drive the suicide rate up. I think it was most likely that it could be a positive role in reducing it, if it’s handled responsibly.”

A Commonwealth Press Union submission to the Coroners Bill Select Committee in 2005 said it was not in the public interest to continue with such stringent law on reporting suicides while New Zealand’s suicide rates were some of the world’s highest.

“We strongly believe responsible reporting of the scourge of suicide could provide a better understanding, lead to more discussion of alternatives and the help people can get and perhaps lead to a reduction in our high rates.” Wellington coroner Garry Evans agrees.

In early 2005, he called for greater openness in the media’s coverage of suicide, rejecting the idea that reporting would increase suicide rates. “If concealment from the public of evidence in these tragic cases is calculated to reduce the incidence of suicide in young people, one would expect that New Zealand, with its restrictive provisions, would be lower on the OECD ladder for youth suicide.”

Napier coroner Warwick Holmes echoed Mr Evan’s point a year later at an inquest into six deaths, four of which were self-inflicted, saying the “hush-hush” approach was not working.

“We have a genuine problem in New Zealand and the more attention brought to it will help address this problem,” The Dominion Post reported him as saying. “We’ve got legislation saying ‘don’t talk about it’ and, from my position, I have a problem believing the legislation is doing anything to solve the problem… On the one hand we hush it all up but all we do is create a dilemma.” In a coroner’s decision released this week, Mr Evans allowed the media to report that the self-inflicted death of an inmate at Christchurch Men’s Prison in 2005 involved razor blades, but not what he did with them.

Murray Louis Childs, sentenced to life imprisonment in 1999, died from self-inflicted injuries, “brought about through his use of the razors he was permitted to bring into the open prison wing and retain overnight,” Mr Evans found.

Childs died after being transferred into a general prison wing from the prison’s designated care unit, where he had stayed for four years. He had a history of mental illness and had developed a severe depressive disorder with psychotic features while in prison.

Prison officers had failed to regularly check on him throughout the night, and had allowed him to take the razor blades into the wing, despite being at risk. In his findings, Mr Evans said, in this case, the added detail needed to be released because it was important for the public to “have confidence in the New Zealand prison system and in the provision of mental health services for prisoners suffering from mental illness.

“Where there may be inadequacies or deficiencies in the management of prisoners or in the treatment of prisoners suffering from mental illness, it is desirable that the public should know the reasons for such inadequacies or deficiencies have been inquired into and that steps have been taken with a view to ensuring that they do not occur again.”

Fairfax Media has a code calling on its reporters to “exercise care” in reporting suicides so that “without stifling debate in the public interest, journalists do not unwittingly encourage others to take their own lives”.

But the code only covers a small proportion of New Zealand’s journalists, and leaves Australian Provincial Newspapers, owner of The New Zealand Herald and nearly half of the country’s papers, NZPA, as well as TV and much of radio, without guidelines.

Neither the principles of the Press Council or the Broadcasting Standards Authority mention suicide reporting, and the Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union, which represents the majority of unionised journalists, doesn’t mention suicide reporting in its code.

Responsible reporting

For the most part, journalists are without guidelines on what suicide reporting should entail.

Mr Samson says suicide reporting “is arguably the most difficult and heart-wrenching” issue journalists will encounter, and clear guidelines should be laid out for them to access.

A ‘Reporting Suicide: At a Glance Card’ produced by the Ministry of Health and Youth Suicide Prevention Strategy offers some “considerations” for journalists and editors when reporting suicides.

Journalists should avoid glorifying suicide by presenting it as “romantic or heroic”, and should minimise tributes such as eulogies and memorials. They should acknowledge the person’s problems, including mental health issues, and never report the details of the mode of suicide.

Suicide should be presented “as a poor choice”, and include suggestions like seeking help, talking to friends and family, and print “positive” stories about people overcoming their despair.

Editors should avoid placing a story on the front page, as there is evidence that a more prominent display may encourage copycats, while headlines should be carefully considered and repetitive coverage should be avoided.

The Commonwealth Press Union’s select committee submission said responsible reporting was able to address causes, warning signs, trends, advances in treatment and suicide prevention strategies, and outlined a list of draft protocols similar to the Ministry of Health card.

Mr Pankhurst says the media can have a constructive role in addressing the country’s suicide rate.

“It’s a national scandal. More people kill themselves in this Godzone country than are killed on the road and you can see it, not every day thankfully, but at least once a week.”

He says responsible reporting could include information on warning signs and where to go for help.

“When people reach this desperate stage they’re very fragile mentally. I do accept that it is beholden on the media to walk carefully through this fraught area.”

Victoria University psychology lecturer Marc Wilson says the adoption of guidelines for journalists in some countries has shown an increase in the reporting of suicide, but no corresponding increase in the rate of suicide.

“If reporting is linked to suicide imitation, that suggests that maybe changes in the way suicide is reported may be a useful thing.”

Yet overseas suicide reporting often falls short of responsible.

Mr Samson points to a front-page article in Britain’s Evening Standard headlined: ‘Woman Lawyer Suicide Plunge’, accompanied by a picture of the woman.

On page 5, the story continued with the headline, ‘She bent her legs, held out her arms and just jumped’, and the page was half-filled with a picture of her jumping.

“And lest readers had poor eyesight, the paper had put a large red circle around the falling body. This would never have happened in New Zealand,” Mr Samson says.

He says there are cases when suicides should be covered in the public interest, and written about “sensitively and helpfully”.

“I agree with journalism academics who have written that reporting is justified in the public interest where there are larger social issues (such as clusters of deaths or an identified trend like endemic bullying), where a public figure is involved, where the deceased was in prison or police custody, where it caused public disruption, or to end rumour or speculation.”

The Wanganui Chronicle neglected to report responsibily around a year ago when it ran an attempted suicide story with a prominent picture of a man jumping off a city bridge, Mr Samson says.

Because he had survived, no laws were broken.

“It turned out he was a deeply depressed, troubled man. I thought that was terrible,” Mr Samson says.

The silence isn’t working

In 2007, The Dominion Post ran a campaign called ‘The Silence Isn’t Working’, involving a series of articles talking about the people and the issues behind suicides.

Mr Pankhurst calls suicide “a terrible scourge” on society, and says it is an issue the media shouldn’t shy away from.

“We weren’t concerned with the how. We don’t want to be saying ‘they took a piece of rope and used this particular knot and flung themselves off the balcony’ but we are very, very concerned with the why.

“We felt that the clinicians, the psychologists and so on had captured the argument, and it was basically that the media should not report suicides because there was too great a risk of this encouraging others to copycat.

“And our attitude was ‘look, we understand that it is a fraught area but there’s this huge disconnect between the reporting restrictions here and the high suicide rate’.”

Attempted suicide and Veitch coverage

Attempted suicides are not regulated by the Coroners Act, and while they should be treated as sensitively as deaths, the media has recently fallen short of its responsibility to ensure its reporting isn’t detrimental to public safety.

Aside from the recent self-inflicted death of Napier siege gunman Jan Molenaar (which a coroner found resulted from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head), the most recent high-profile coverage graphically detailed numerous suicide attempts by disgraced sports presenter Tony Veitch.

On 19 April, the Sunday News headlined one such story ‘Tony Veitch’s suicide bid’; on 7 September last year, The Herald on Sunday reported “Veitch was hospitalised on Friday amid serious concerns for his health and safety,” following a frantic search, ambulance callout and police involvement.

In subsequent reports, the public was told Veitch attempted at least once to overdose on drugs, and also tried gassing himself in his car.

Neither The Herald on Sunday or the Sunday News, each of which ran front page leads with tipoffs from sources, responded to <em>Salient</em>’s numerous requests for interviews.

Mr Pankhurst says if he had been editing the Veitch coverage at those papers, he would have done it differently.

“It’s a very, very complex story. Fascinating. It did sell papers too. The appetite for that story was huge. But I think some of the media reporting was questionable.”

Mr Price says coverage of attempted suicide, as in the Veitch case, raises questions of ethics and is evidence that perhaps the media needs statutory regulation if it can’t report such cases responsible.

“I’m not sure that reporting showed an awful lot of sensitivity for the people involved… If you take that as a case study, I’m not sure that it really shows that the media are capable of doing this in a self-regulatory way.”

Mr Wilson believes that unlike John Kirwan depression ads, the Veitch coverage could be potentially dangerous to public safety and the stigma of suicide.

“Tony Veitch is a person of ambiguous moral character in the context in which this has occured. The risk that that runs is portraying people who are engaged in suicidal behaviour or ideation as being in some way morally culpable or engaging in behaviour that causes guilt over something that we might not know about. So I think there’s a serious risk there.”

The copycat effect

The fear of the media reporting suicides is based on studies showing that the dissemination of information on suicide will have a ‘copycat’ effect, but the academics and journalists who spoke to Salient were of the opinion that responsible reporting can be beneficial to society—creating discussion on the taboo that is suicide and even lowering suicide rates.

Mr Wilson doesn’t believe a strong link can be drawn between reporting of suicide and suicidal behaviour in New Zealand, and says a reader’s vulnerability is a key issue in what effects the coverage will have on them.

“The reason people get worked up about suicide is it violates what we see as a key part of us: carrying on living, appreciating the life that we have, and for that reason it’s very easy for people to get very worked up about this sort of thing and worry that if you talk about it, if you say the word ‘suicide’, people are going to do it.”

He says it’s “a little bit precious” for researchers to think talking about suicide is all that is needed to make people take their lives. “I think that when we talk about it, it eliminates some of the mystique about it, makes it easier for people to feel it’s a legitimate thing that they can go and seek help about…

“To be quite honest in many ways, if someone is actually serious about suicide, all they need to do is go onto Google and actually put something in, but at the same time I don’t think we should make it easy for people to find information about the different ways that they can off themselves.”

Mr Pankhurst says it would be better for the issue to be pulled into the open and addressed, instead of euphemisms and gossip disguising the issue.

“There’s a recognition that there might be the risk of some copycat behaviour, but with the rise of texting and the internet, I think that renders a lot of the argument irrelevant anyway.

“There’s a good argument, if there is a cluster of suicides in a school, and recently that has happened several times, and all sorts of wild things are flashing around on the net and in texting—it would be better if it was pulled out and addressed more openly.”

Mr Samson agrees, saying the topic is one the media should endeavour to discuss.

“To me, if there is a problem in our society, it is always better to drag it into the open than bury it.

“Isn’t that just logical?”

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About the Author ()

With her take-no-prisoners, kick-ass attitude, former News Editor Laura McQuillan adequately makes up for her lack of stature. Roaming the corridors (and underground tunnels) of the University by day, and hunting vampires and Nazi war criminals by night, McQuillan will stop at nothing to bring you the freshest news.

Comments (7)

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  1. Stella says:

    Here’s something that I wonder about: doesn’t the current method of suicide reporting imply that no one cares very much about the suicides? And didn’t a lot of these people kill themselves because no one cared about them (or that’s what they thought)? So the message we’re sending here is really “No one cares whether people like you live or die. It’s not even worth reporting.” Is that the best message to be sending potential suicides?

  2. Sando says:

    That is something that worries me. If we look at the sheer amount of failed suicides, successful suicides and deaths that may have been suicides, but ruled as another cause of death, (which happens scarily often.) there must actually be a large amount of people who go through a suicidal phase or phases. Estranging the act with under reportage, and then further mysticising it with euphamistic and poor journalism is just a terrible idea.

  3. henok says:

    i do believe it is an issue that needed to be talked about.
    however i do not trust the media and i do not believe they will be able to report the issue in an approprite manner. the media uses such problem to gain money from it.their must be some more reasons to why the government say no to reporting such problem. to me the media and journalist are all the same.

  4. Joan says:

    It needs to be sensitively out in the open. Along with emergency phone numbers and websites, suicide needs to be discussed in an open and healthy manner. It is a cancer in New Zealand. Under reporting and ignoring this “dirty little secret” is absolutely irresponsible by the parliment and the media. I would like to see more ads for help which – in small type – includes help for suicidal thoughts. Banner headlines just glamorize a problem that is truly a mental health issue. Get over it New Zealand, polite, trite words just don’t cut it – be honest but not brutally honest! This is not that hard to do!!!

  5. Stella says:

    I think one of the reasons why suicide is such a difficult thing to deal with is that suicide itself isn’t actually the problem. It’s a response to a problem, or problems. Preventing suicide involves helping people to solve their problems in ways that don’t involve dying. I don’t imagine the media will ever cover this complex issue in the way it deserves, but perhaps the media could help us to open a dialogue about why these people thought suicide was the only option open to them.

  6. Electrum Stardust says:

    It is not every day that Salient (or student magazines in general) gets complimented on RNZ. Laura even got mentioned by name, I think. Keep it up!

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