Chapter 6
The justifications for reform

6.1Having described in the preceding chapters the current context in New Zealand for suicide reporting and the evidence for the harm that may arise, we now turn to the following questions:

6.2In this chapter, we will address the case for reform and, if reform is justified, the question of whether a legislative restriction is required. In Chapters 7 and 8, we will address the scope of any legislative restriction, and whether or not the recommended legislative provision is a reasonable limitation on freedom of expression. In the final chapter we describe our recommendations for a new set of standards for reporting suicide.

The case for reform

6.3We have concluded that the restrictions on reporting suicide in sections 71 to 73 of the Coroners Act 2006 (Coroners Act) are not working well to achieve the policy goals and should be reformed for the following reasons.

The scope of the current provisions is not clear

6.4In Chapter 3 we described the current provisions of the Coroners Act that restrict the reporting of suicide, and the problems in determining exactly what details of a suicide death are prohibited from being published by those sections. We concluded that the scope of the restrictions is not clear. We consider that if a legislative restriction on reporting suicide continues to be included in the statute, its scope should be made clearer than the current restriction – both in relation to which details of the suicide death may be reported, and to whether the death could in fact be described as a suicide. In addition, if the legislation provides for an exemption from that restriction, the weight that should be given to the competing interests should be clearer than it is in the current provisions.

The provisions are not being complied with

6.5In Chapter 5 we examined the extent to which media practice complies with the statutory restrictions and the guidelines. We concluded that there was a significant amount of reporting on suicide in mainstream media. While reporting in mainstream media complies reasonably well with the requirements of the suicide reporting guidelines, and usually refrains from reporting the method of a suicide death, it frequently breaches the requirements of section 71 either directly or indirectly. We also found that accounts and discussion of suicide deaths in social media often run parallel to reports in mainstream media. There is a significant convergence between the two, with social media referring and providing links to mainstream reports, and vice versa.

Is a legislative process required for restricting suicide reporting?Top

6.6Having concluded that change is required, we must consider whether a new statutory restriction is required, or whether the policy goals can be achieved by a non-legislative means. We have concluded that while a set of guidelines outside the legislative framework is the most appropriate method of achieving the goal of low-risk reporting on suicide for the most part, strong arguments remain for limited, well-defined statutory restrictions, as set out below.

The harm from reporting suicide

6.7There is clear evidence that reports of the method of a suicide death run a substantial risk of resulting in subsequent suicidal behaviour in already vulnerable people. In Chapter 2 and Appendix C we summarised findings from a large number of scientific studies and systematic reviews of the evidence of a copycat effect. We identified that the evidence of harm from reporting the method of suicide was particularly strong, but the evidence of harm from other aspects of suicide reporting (such as normalising suicide, glorifying the suicide, sensational coverage or the prominence of the coverage) was significant but less strong.

6.8We also described in Chapter 2 the interests of the coronial process in undertaking its task of determining the cause of the death. We concluded that it is important that the coroner’s role in determining whether a death was in fact a suicide is not undermined by previous speculation in the media.

Guidelines have been ineffective to date

6.9In Chapter 4 we described the attempts that have been made in New Zealand to implement voluntary guidelines for reporting suicide by the mainstream media. We concluded that although mainstream media practice is reasonably consistent with the guidelines, the guidelines have not been widely used by those media.

6.10In Chapter 9 we describe why we consider that under our recommendations the context for a new collaborative effort for guidelines is likely to be improved. We also describe other measures for ensuring the successful implementation of new guidelines. Despite the prospect of that new context, it must be conceded that the success of a new set of guidelines remains uncertain, depending as it does upon numerous factors including leadership and funding.

6.11Given that uncertainty, we consider the statute should restrict those aspects of suicide reporting for which there is very strong evidence of the potential for harm – that is, reporting of the method of suicide and that a death is in fact a suicide.

Guidelines are less likely to be effective in new media

6.12In addition to the arguments above, statutory prohibitions on reporting the method of suicide and the fact that the death is a suicide will send a strong message beyond mainstream media to the public at large that significant harm may ensue from publicly reporting those two limited aspects of a suicide death. Even if a new set of guidelines can be successfully implemented for the mainstream media, the messages from those guidelines are not likely to reach the public at large, who may be discussing the details of suicide deaths publicly via blogs or social media. Clearly defined prohibitions in the statute that are enforced by police from time to time will help to curb risky behaviour in new media.