4.1The World Health Organisation (WHO) has estimated that annually there are more than one million suicides worldwide. From any viewpoint this phenomenon constitutes a serious public health problem. Prevention and control is, however, no easy matter. Preventing suicide is multifaceted. It includes providing optimal conditions for bringing up our children and youth, effective treatment of mental disorder and controlling environmental risk factors.
4.2As we have noted in Chapter 2, more than 80 scientific studies worldwide have examined the association between media coverage of suicide and further suicidal behaviour. Inevitably there are some differences between them but nonetheless they show respectably consistent findings across different types of media, different research methodologies and different cultures and countries.
4.3Agreement is widespread that media depictions and reporting on stories of suicide may precipitate suicidal behaviour in vulnerable individuals, with such individuals particularly susceptible to stories involving celebrity suicide and, most importantly, those which provide details of methods of suicide.
4.4WHO has stated:
Over 50 investigations into imitative suicides have been conducted. Systematic reviews of these studies have consistently drawn the same conclusion: media reporting of suicide can lead to imitative suicidal behaviours. These reviews have also observed that imitation is more evident under some circumstances than others. It varies as a function of time, peaking within the first three days and levelling off by about two weeks, but sometimes lasting longer. It is related to the amount and prominence of coverage, with repeated coverage and ‘high impact’ stories being most strongly associated with imitative behaviours. It is accentuated when the person described in the story and the reader or viewer are similar in some way, or when the person described in the story is a celebrity and is held in high regard by the reader or viewer. Particular subgroups in the population (e.g., young people, people suffering from depression) may be especially vulnerable to engaging in imitative suicidal behaviours. Finally, and probably most importantly, overt description of suicide by a particular method may lead to increases in suicidal behaviour employing that method.
4.5Studies have demonstrated that media reports about suicide can have a beneficial effect when they describe people recapturing control over their lives. These are sometimes called “mastery of crisis stories”.
Utilisation of guidelines
4.6Given these problems, media reporting guidelines have become one of the most important and widely recognised public health approaches to suicide prevention. Countries with media reporting guidelines for suicide include Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, England, Germany, Hong Kong, Ireland, Japan, Northern Ireland, Norway, Scotland, United Kingdom and the United States of America.
4.7It is easy to get lost in the details, but it is important to see where the similarities and the broad thrust of these guidelines lie. We set out as an example the “Quick Reference for Media Professionals” issued by WHO:
- Take the opportunity to educate the public about suicide.
- Avoid language which sensationalises or normalises suicide, or presents it as a solution to problems.
- Avoid prominent placement and undue repetition of stories about suicide.
- Avoid explicit descriptions of the method used in a completed or attempted suicide.
- Avoid providing detailed information about the site of a completed or attempted suicide.
- Word headlines carefully.
- Exercise caution in using photographs or video footage.
- Take particular care in reporting celebrity suicides.
- Show due consideration for people bereaved by suicide.
- Provide information about where to seek help.
- Recognise that media professionals themselves may be affected by stories about suicide.
4.8An initiative widely recognised for its success is the Mindframe national media initiative funded by the Commonwealth Government of Australia. Mindframe’s object is to encourage responsible, accurate and sensitive media representation of mental illness and suicide. That programme is very proactive in building relationships and fostering influence with media, with the aim of encouraging responsible, accurate and sensitive reporting by media of mental illness and suicide. Its activities include undertaking large-scale media monitoring projects, advising media professionals as they prepare stories on suicide, supporting the suicide prevention sector in their work with the media, and voicing community feedback on how the media are responding to suicide.
4.9Under the auspices of Mindframe, the National Media and Mental Health Group, made up of representatives of peak media bodies, suicide and mental health organisations and the Australian Government, first published the guidelines Reporting Suicide and Mental Illness in 2002. These guidelines have stood out from others around the world, both because of the collaborative way in which they were developed and the process by which they were promoted to the media. Mindframe staff have an ongoing programme of supporting media organisations in using the guidelines, including face-to-face briefings, drop-in visits, offering ad hoc advice, distributing hard and soft copies of the resource and supporting materials, and providing ongoing follow up.
4.10In addition, Mindframe has conducted evaluations of the effectiveness of the guidelines. These evaluations, known as The Media Monitoring Project collected and analysed the portrayal of suicide by mainstream media across a 12-month period in the year before the introduction of the guidelines, and then again four years later. It found that the nature and quality of suicide reporting had improved across newspapers, television and radio between the two periods.
4.11The Ministry of Health first published guidelines to assist the media in 1998. The media were consulted but these guidelines had a rocky evolution. The media subsequently strongly criticised the consultation process. Consequently, the guidelines were reviewed and renamed a “resource” in 1999. These 1999 guidelines incorporated more facts, useful contacts and information on suicide and suicide prevention.
4.12Concerns continued to be expressed by the Chief Coroner and others, and some suicides occurred that were widely publicised. As a result, the Prime Minister established a Ministerial Committee to review the policy underlying the statutory restrictions on reporting suicide and the 1999 guidelines. That Committee came to the conclusion that the evidence underlying the statutory restrictions and the guidelines was still valid, but the guidelines were outdated. In particular the guidelines did not account for social media. The Committee recommended a review of the guidelines.
4.13The then Associate Minister of Health Hon Peter Dunne convened a Roundtable meeting of media and academics to try to have the guidelines redrafted. The composition of that committee was itself somewhat controversial. The Roundtable drafted a set of guidelines (which could perhaps be said to be more inclined towards media interests) and consulted on it. Some suicide prevention experts voiced strong criticism.
4.14The Ministry of Health then drafted an alternative version. That also could not achieve a consensus of support. This left the Roundtable in the position of having to decide which version to support. It decided to proceed with its original version, which is the 2011 version currently appearing on the Ministry of Health website. That version does not carry the Ministry of Health logo. It states that it was adopted by the Media Freedom Committee and the Newspaper Publishers Association.
4.15There is documented evidence that journalists generally ignored the 1999 guidelines, preferring to be guided by what is considered newsworthy, and relying on the in-house practices of their newsrooms and judgement of more senior colleagues. It has been suggested anecdotally that despite the media having a greater sense of ownership of the 2011 guidelines, they are also being ignored. It has to be said that this is a far from satisfactory position. The net result is that to the extent that guidelines exist in New Zealand, they represent unfinished business and do not enjoy widespread support.
4.16The reasons for the apparent ineffectiveness of voluntary guidelines in New Zealand have not been systematically studied. It appears to us that there are a number of contributing factors:
- In particular, the media object to the statutory restrictions as being a fetter on their right to freedom of expression and an attack on the quasi-constitutional role of the media as watchdog. That negative attitude to the statutory restrictions may have hindered the development of a mature and collaborative culture for reporting suicide in New Zealand by making consensus more difficult to achieve.
- Interviews of journalists by researchers demonstrated that the guidelines tended to be conflated with the legislative prohibition. It may be that the media’s negative attitude to the statutory restrictions has also coloured the reputation of the guidelines so that they are perceived as being more restrictive than they really are.
- It was also apparent that among many who suggested to us the media have no role in reporting suicide, including some mental health professionals, there was often a lack of understanding of both the role of the media and the practical realities of media organisations. In our view, an understanding of both matters is a necessary ingredient for any collaborative approach to reporting suicide.
- It appears that while the development of each of the sets of guidelines involved a great deal of time and effort, an ongoing strategy was lacking for their dissemination and promotion. While the Mental Health Foundation undertakes some monitoring of suicide reporting and is available by telephone to support journalists in this regard (as is described in the following chapter), that service is not funded to do more than a minimal job.