Current media practice of reporting suicide in New Zealand
5.1In the preceding chapters we described the evidence of risk from some forms of reporting suicide, and the methods by which New Zealand has sought to mitigate that risk – namely by direct legislative restrictions and by voluntary guidelines and educational material.
5.2The standards and accountabilities of New Zealand’s mainstream media were addressed in depth in the Law Commission’s 2012 Ministerial Briefing on the adequacy of the regulatory environment for media in the digital age. In this chapter we are concerned with a much narrower question: to what extent does current media practice in reporting suicide comply with the statutory requirements, the applicable media guidelines, and with the underlying policy objectives?
5.3Given the time and resources available to us we are not in a position to provide a definitive answer to this question. The conclusions we have reached are based on a small number of our own quantitative and qualitative studies, supplemented by in-depth analysis of media coverage of a sample of recent suicides. We have also drawn on the feedback provided by key stake holders in the course of consultation.
5.4The purpose of this exercise is not to critique the news media’s performance, but to provide a reasonably objective assessment of the efficacy of the existing combination of statutory restrictions and media guidelines, and inform our reform proposals. This assessment will also help provide a benchmark against which to monitor media practice under any new regime introduced by Parliament in the wake of this review.
5.5Nothing in the Coroners Act 2006 (Coroners Act) prevents the media, or any person, from discussing suicide. Despite this, the current restrictions on reporting the particulars of a suspected suicide before a coroner has determined the cause of death are sometimes blamed for creating a “cloak of silence” around suicide in this country.
5.6For example, in a submission, the Media Freedom Committee, which represents New Zealand’s major broadcast and print media, stated that society was on “dangerous ground when it gags its members from speaking out about issues of public concern”, and furthermore that it could be argued that the current “prohibition on all reporting is inhibiting the lowering of the suicide rate”.
5.7However, in our view the evidence does not support the assertion that there is a cloak of silence around suicide in New Zealand. On the contrary, suicide – both as a general topic and in relation to specific instances – consistently features on the news media’s agenda.
5.8For example, the Mental Health Foundation undertakes daily monitoring of all mainstream media suicide reporting as part of its Suicide Prevention Information New Zealand service provided under contract to the Ministry of Health. It reports that on average between 50 and 100 suicide-related items are published by mainstream media in New Zealand each week. When a particularly newsworthy death occurs it will often receive blanket coverage across all media channels: for example, in the two weeks after the death of an Auckland private school student, the Mental Health Foundation recorded more than 100 unique items reporting on the event.
5.9A simple Google search of mainstream media coverage of suicide over a month between August and September 2013 conducted by the Commission found 104 factual news stories relating to suicide in New Zealand. Analysis of the content of these stories showed that:
- Sixteen of these focused on the personal experience of those whose lives had been personally affected by suicide.
- A further nine had a personal focus but also traversed policy issues.
- Five dealt with coronial reports or findings.
- Sixty-nine dealt with issues relating to suicide prevention or policies.
5.10Our findings are consistent with those of a major study into how the New Zealand media report suicide, commissioned by the Ministry of Health and published in 2010 (the 2010 Te Pou Report). That study replicated the design of the Australian Media Monitoring Project undertaken in 2000/2001 and repeated in 2006/2007, but modified it for New Zealand conditions. The researchers surveyed mainstream news media for a 12-month period in 2008 and 2009 and found in that time 3,483 factual media items relating to suicide were published in New Zealand. Newspaper items and internet items made up 50 per cent and 40 per cent of the sample, respectively. Researchers coded each item according to its primary focus or angle and found that across all media (internet, radio, television, print) by far the two largest categories of stories focused on either an individual’s completed suicide or on issues such as suicide prevention or euthanasia. Numerically the extent of coverage was very close to the figures obtained in a similar research project in Australia, where there are no statutory constraints on suicide reporting.
The nature and quality of reporting
5.11As well as undertaking a quantitative analysis of the 3,483 suicide-related stories published over the 12-month period, the 2010 Te Pou Report also undertook a qualitative analysis of a random sample of 10 per cent of the items, assessing them for compliance with the Ministry of Health’s 1999 guidelines. The study did not evaluate compliance with the Coroners Act.
5.12Researchers coded the random sample of stories according to whether or not they followed the 1999 guidelines – for example, in respect of:
- the use of appropriate language;
- the presentation of the story including prominence, headlines and the use of visual material;
- any description of the method of suicide; and
- the extent to which the item as a whole tended to sensationalise, glamorise or normalise suicide, or perpetuate myths about or oversimplify its causes.
5.13Based on their assessment of the sample, the researchers concluded that the media reporting of suicide during the 12-month period in question “mostly adhered to the Ministry of Health guidelines”. Specifically, the study found that:
- Most items did not portray suicide in an inappropriate manner.
- Few items were reported in such a way as to normalise suicide.
- Detailed discussion on the method of suicide was not reported often.
- “Surprisingly” few items referenced the fact that a person who completed suicide was a celebrity.
- Most items did not use inappropriate language, were not located inappropriately, did not use suicide in the headline and did not include inappropriate footage of the suicide scene or methods.
5.14However, researchers did conclude there was room for improvement. Stories often failed to avoid simplistic explanations of suicide, or to adequately contextualise suicidal behaviour or explain the complex psycho-social factors that place individuals at risk, or the triggers that can lead them to complete suicide. In particular they noted “the causative link between mental health or addiction and suicidal behaviour was not well developed in many items”.
5.15The study also highlighted problems with using the 1999 guidelines as a quality measure and pointed out significant issues with both the acceptance and practical application of the Ministry’s guidelines in a fast moving and increasingly complex news environment:
Our quality analysis does not tell us anything about whether the journalists actually use the guidelines in the construction of their articles. Existing research indicates that they are highly resistant to doing so, with many journalists reporting not even being aware of their existence ... Further, not following the guidelines is not necessarily indicative of “bad” quality reporting. Some of the quality indicators devised from these guidelines are contentious in terms of whether the indicator equates with “good” or “bad” quality. (Citations omitted).
5.16In the five years since this research was conducted a number of significant changes have occurred in the reporting environment. These include:
- the Chief Coroner’s repeated calls for a more open reporting environment, including encouraging fellow coroners to:
… think seriously about whether you can go beyond the bare bones of name, address and occupation so people can understand what really went on – think about it each time, don't just instinctively restrict, just because that's the way you have always done it in the past.
- the adoption in 2011 by the Media Freedom Committee and the Newspaper Publishers’ Association of significantly revised and simplified guidelines for reporting suicide, developed by a Roundtable meeting convened by Hon Peter Dunne, then Associate Minister of Health;
- increasing media and political focus on bullying (including cyberbullying), alcohol and drug abuse, depression and dysfunctional relationships as factors contributing to youth suicide rates;
- ongoing organisational and structural change across all media sectors in response to the substantial change brought about by technology and shifting media consumption habits; and
- exponential increases in the use of social media and mobile communication technology across all sectors of the population, but in particular within the younger demographic.
5.17Apart from the monthly media monitoring undertaken by the Mental Health Foundation and informal monitoring by the Ministry of Justice on behalf of the Chief Coroner, we are not aware of any systematic assessment of how these changes are impacting on the media’s approach to reporting suicide.
5.18However, based on our own limited research and views expressed during consultation, it seems clear that the Chief Coroner’s stance, and its endorsement by some senior politicians and media has resulted in a more liberal reporting environment, not least because it has resulted in some coroners adopting a more proactive approach in releasing and commenting on their findings.
5.19It is also clear from academic research that the entertainment sector, new media, and mobile communication technology are adding new layers of complexity to the challenge of controlling or influencing how and when information about suicide is communicated, both publicly and within affected communities.
5.20In 2012 researchers conducted interviews with 71 young people aged 13 to 25 who were engaged with clinical services because of recent intentional self-harm behaviour, to determine the influence of media on their suicidal behaviour. This study focused on both negative and positive effects of a wide range of media (including music, music videos, the internet, books, television, movies, newspapers, magazines, cell phones and social media) on suicidal ideation and self-harm behaviour. By considering this broad range of media the study was able to provide a nuanced and multi-layered account of the cultural and social soup in which this cohort of vulnerable young people is growing up. Some of the insights in the study challenge conventional thinking about the extent of traditional news media’s impact on young people with respect to suicide. For example, the most common way in which the male respondents were first introduced to the concepts of suicide and self-harm was via school or teachers. Similarly, fictional television programmes, music, music videos, movies and the internet were the most common sources of exposure to portrayals of suicidal behaviour. The study concluded, amongst other things, that best practice in the treatment of suicide needs to be adopted not just by the news media, but also by those creating entertainment content for media.
5.21In another New Zealand study published in 2012, investigators undertook a forensic examination of eight suicides that were linked either temporally, geographically or through some other interpersonal connection. Among the key issues they explored was whether and in what ways the use of modern communication technology such as texting and social media had impacted on these events. The study found that several of the deaths were linked by social media, particularly by memorial sites set up for earlier suicide cases, and by the use of mobile phones. The researchers concluded that:
In view of other evidence linking publicity and social modeling to suicide contagion ... it appeared likely that these electronic communications were increasing the risk of suicide contagion among young people. The rapid spread of information and rumor throughout the community was facilitated by these technologies. This led to increased awareness of the suicide cluster throughout the community, inaccurate information about numbers and methods, and heightened anxiety. This has important implications because the perception of suicide clustering in itself is thought to increase the risk of contagion. (Citations omitted).
5.22The mainstream media are naturally alert to the anomalies created by the new communications environment and in particular the perceived absence of an even playing field when it comes to the application of statutory restrictions in suicide reporting. The Media Freedom Committee has expressed the problem:
… while the responsible media in New Zealand is effectively gagged, others are not. We have argued previously that the law is unfairly restrictive in responsible reporting when there is nothing to stop any other party using social media to publish all sorts of details about a suicide and no penalties can reach them.
5.23As a matter of law it is incorrect to state that no penalties can reach ordinary citizens who use blogs or social media to disseminate information about a particular suicide. The current statutory prohibitions apply to all citizens, not just reports by mainstream media. However, to the best of our knowledge no media organisation or any individual has ever been prosecuted for breaching the publishing provisions in the Coroners Act.
5.24In the lead up to and in the course of this review, a number of suicides attracted strong media attention because of the characteristics of the individual who died or the circumstances surrounding the case (including for example, multiple suicides within a small community or the suicide of members of the same school communities).
5.25Although not resourced to undertake a systematic review of how these deaths were reported, the Commission monitored media coverage of a number of cases in both mainstream and social media. We also interviewed a range of people affected by the deaths or involved in suicide prevention in the communities affected. Among those interviewed were representatives of families who had lost children through suicide in Kawerau and representatives of families who had been subjected to intense media pressure after the death of a high profile relative. The purpose of these inquiries was to hear first-hand the impact of media coverage on those affected by suicide.
5.26We also thought it important to understand how the dissemination of information about these suicides was occurring within the affected peer groups and communities, and also how interactive media (including Twitter and Facebook) was influencing mainstream media coverage.
5.27To this end we selected six case studies, all of which were considered “newsworthy” for different reasons (including one involving the deaths of five young people from the same community over a short period) and undertook a qualitative analysis of how they had been presented to the public. In total, 83 separate articles were assessed alongside related content on social media. The key issues examined were:
- compliance with the Coroners Act;
- compliance with the 1999 guidelines for reporting suicide;
- sensitivity to bereaved families in reporting; and
- extent and impact of new media coverage.
Compliance with the Coroners Act
5.28Of the news items reviewed, nearly a third (24/83) did not comply with section 71 of the Coroners Act or with coroners’ rulings in respect of publication. Analysis suggests that the provisions were most likely to be breached in circumstances where:
- the individual or the family was newsworthy in their own right;
- the family sought out media coverage; or
- the death was associated with alleged service failures of public institutions.
5.29Analysis also revealed that approximately 25 per cent of the news items expressly stated that the death was a suicide before the coroner had ruled it such and even when it was not baldly stated it was almost always either directly or indirectly implied. Indeed, as the media have often pointed out in their submissions, simply reporting that a death “is not considered suspicious” or has been “referred to the coroner” has become code for suspected suicide.
Compliance with the 1999 guidelines
5.30An assessment for compliance with the 1999 guidelines for reporting suicide revealed similar findings to the 2010 Te Pou Report: by and large the items avoided inappropriate language, sensational treatment, or explicit details of the manner of death. Again, the exceptions tended to involve the suspected suicides of high profile individuals or suicides that were considered particularly newsworthy for circumstantial reasons.
5.31It was also significant that on a number of occasions stories that breached one or more of the 1999 guidelines – including, for example, describing the method of death – were directly drawn from coroners’ reports that had been released for publication. Sometimes the findings were also couched in language or described the circumstances of the suicides in relatively simplistic ways that could be interpreted as perpetuating suicide myths. For example, a media report of one coronial finding was headlined: “Coroner: Teen felt suicide was ‘only solution’”.
Sensitivity to bereaved families
5.32Assessing the extent to which the news media had shown sensitivity to families and respected their privacy was difficult without knowing the circumstances that led the bereaved to be interviewed. In a number of cases it was clear family members had actively sought media coverage, often to air grievances about alleged third party failures leading up to the death. In other cases we were made aware that families who had specifically requested privacy had been subjected to intense media pressure, including reporters arriving at private residences and telephoning the family home.
5.33The other striking, if unsurprising, feature of the case studies was the extent to which accounts and discussion of the deaths in social media ran parallel to, and often intersected with, “official” accounts in mainstream media. In some instances, bereaved family members or friends published their own accounts of the circumstances of the death or established memorial pages on social networking sites. On at least one occasion, news of the death was broken on Twitter.
5.34Mainstream media reports of a death would frequently draw on content available on social media, including hyperlinking to memorial pages or other social media content. Conversely, mainstream reports of the deaths would be linked or reproduced in social media discussion of a death.
5.35This interdependence between new and traditional media illustrates the difficulty of attempting to use legislative means to control the dissemination of information. It also highlights the fact that even when mainstream media adhere to the legal constraints and reporting guidelines in their official accounts, the public is increasingly reading this content against a backdrop of speculation, rumour and sometimes graphic detail gleaned from a wide variety of alternative sources.
5.36We are not in a position to definitively establish whether the current legal prohibitions and voluntary guidelines are meeting their objectives. However, based on the few academic studies, our own research, and the expert opinions of those with whom we have consulted, we have concluded that while the mainstream media complies reasonably well with the suicide reporting guidelines, and in particular refrains from publishing the means by which a person has taken their life, they frequently breach (directly or by implication) section 71 of the Coroners Act. Social media appears to run unchecked.