Chapter 9
Standards for reporting suicide

9.1We have suggested that a legislative prohibition against reporting suicide can only be justified in respect of reporting the method of a suicide and the fact that the death is a suicide. That leaves open the question of what to do about all the other forms of reporting suicide that may result in harm, but for which a statutory prohibition is not justified. In this category are such matters as:

9.2These matters have been covered by voluntary guidelines and resource material, and have had a difficult history in New Zealand.100

Recommendations

R15 The statute should provide that:
  • the Minister of Health (or his or her delegate) must prepare a set of standards for suicide reporting; and
  • in doing so, the Minister must consult with representatives of the media and of mental health interests, and with such other people as he or she considers appropriate.
R16 The new standards for reporting suicide should:
  • apply to every person publicly reporting on a suicide death including in mainstream media, a blog or social media;
  • be implemented via a non-legislative mechanism (in respect of the mainstream media, that means via the various media standards bodies).
R17 The statute should require the Minister of Health (or his or her delegate) to implement an ongoing programme to disseminate, promote and support the implementation of the standards, and to evaluate the success of those standards in achieving the goal of low-risk reporting of suicide.

Discussion

A revised set of standards for a new era

9.3As described in Chapter 4, it is apparent that neither the 2011 guidelines nor the earlier version published in 1999 have become a regular resource for journalists when reporting suicide. It is likely, therefore, that journalists are not well informed about the potential risks of reporting suicide, and decisions about reporting suicide are based simply on newsworthiness rather than also on the risk of harm.

9.4Therefore, it is essential that a revised set of standards for reporting suicide is prepared and implemented under the leadership of the Minister of Health. We are referring to these obligations as “standards” merely to differentiate them from the earlier guidelines. There is reason for optimism that the recommended clarification of the scope of the statutory restrictions will produce a much more constructive environment for these fresh standards to be effective. The media and those involved with suicide prevention have much common ground. For example, the following are agreed:

9.5It is likely that by limiting the statutory restriction to only the method of the suicide and the fact that a death is a suicide, greater trust and collaboration will be possible. The uncertainty about the scope of the current statutory restrictions and the consequent potential for them to be interpreted broadly by some people, have, in our view, been responsible for an entrenched view for some within the media that their right to freedom of expression is under attack. That perceived attack goes to the core of their understanding of the fundamental role of the media in society.

9.6Most members of the media consider that their responsibilities go beyond fair and accurate reporting. They would support the view that where there is clear evidence of the potential for harm from their reporting, they must take due account of that. It is also likely that the apparent conflation by the media of the current guidelines with the statutory restrictions will disappear when the statutory restriction becomes tied specifically to method of suicide.

9.7On the other side of the debate, we are of the view that while mental health experts working in suicide prevention are wary of the perceived risks of reducing the scope of the statutory restrictions, they would wholeheartedly support a limited restriction if effective voluntary guidelines were also implemented. Their goal is for suicide reporting to be done in a way that reduces risk to vulnerable people. It is not the particular mechanism for reducing the harm of suicide reporting that matters to this group, but rather the effectiveness of the mechanism.

Enforcement of standards

Industry enforcement

9.8We have concluded that the new set of standards for reporting suicide should be enforced via non-legislative mechanisms. For mainstream media, that means via the three media standards organisations:

9.9Our research indicates that to date only the Press Council has dealt with complaints specifically about the potential harm from reporting suicide.108 In the case of the Broadcasting Standards Authority that may be because none of its current standards deal specifically with reporting suicide. The Online Media Standards Authority on the other hand has only been hearing complaints since 2013.
9.10In its 2012 Report The News Media Meets ‘New Media’: Rights, Responsibilities and Regulation in the Digital Age, the Law Commission recommended the establishment of a new independent media complaints body to replace the three disparate systems of media regulation. The Government did not adopt that recommendation, although it agreed to keep this area under review.109
9.11It was (and remains) the Commission’s view that the current disparate systems have become untenable in the digital era, which has seen a convergence of media platforms. The proposed News Media Standards Authority (Authority), if adopted, would have been independent of government, and substantially independent of the media industry. It would have been chaired by a retired judge or other respected, experienced and well-known public figure. The majority of members would have represented the public. A minority of members would have represented the media so that the Authority was well informed about the industry and understood its inherent pressures.110
9.12The Commission stopped short of recommending that the new Authority should have the power to issue fines, stating that fines would need to be significant to be effective for larger organisations, which in turn would lead to increased legalism and incentives for litigious behaviour. Instead it was recommended that the Authority have the power to censure or to require an apology, right of reply, that material be taken down or that its decision be published. In exceptional cases it should have the power to suspend or terminate the membership of a media agency.111

9.13Such a unified complaints system would have provided the ideal enforcement mechanism for a new set of standards for reporting suicide. Despite the lack of a financial penalty available to it, the Authority’s relative independence from the media industry, and its range of practical enforcement options, would have provided an effective platform upon which to launch a new set of standards.

Legislative regulatory enforcement

9.14There is some doubt amongst mental health professionals that the new standards will be adhered to by mainstream media if there is no legislative enforcement of those standards. In light of the degree of distrust of voluntary regulation, and the government’s current rejection of a new unified media complaints body, we put a great deal of effort into analysing a spectrum of legislative regulatory options for a new set of standards for reporting suicide. In particular we analysed whether the statute should require all people who make public the details of an individual suicide to comply with the standards for reporting suicide. We also analysed whether it should provide that breaches of those standards are:

9.15We noted that if the statute provided a requirement to comply with standards for reporting suicide, then the coroner would have powers under clause 10(2) of the Harmful Digital Communications Bill (if enacted) to apply to the District Court for orders, including to have material taken down from websites or digital platforms, and to cease the conduct concerned.

9.16After much analysis and consultation on various models, we concluded that a legislative model is not appropriate for the enforcement of standards for reporting suicide, for two reasons.

9.17First, many of the requirements for low-risk suicide reporting cannot be expressed with sufficient certainty to support a legislative obligation, without becoming an unjustified restriction on the right to freedom of expression. Some requirements simply defy attempts to make them sufficiently certain: for example, restrictions on sensationalising or glorifying a suicide death. Even if a particular requirement could be made sufficiently certain, we consider that any enforcement by a legislative regulatory method would make that requirement an unjustified breach of the right to freedom of expression in section 14 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990. As we have stated before, it is only reporting the method of suicide that is supported by sufficient evidence of harm to reach the justification in section 5 of that Act. We consider that while there is significant evidence that, for example, reporting a suicide in a glorifying manner may increase the risk of copycat suicides, and that such evidence is sufficient for journalists and others to voluntarily curb their reporting practices, it is not strong enough to justify a statutory restriction.

9.18Second, a legislative regulatory system of enforcing a suicide reporting code is not likely to be the most effective method of achieving the policy goal of encouraging low-risk suicide reporting. Regulatory requirements will tell a journalist, blogger or person on social media what they should and should not do, but they do not explain why a breach of the requirements is risky. Avoiding risky suicide reporting requires nuanced decision making because it cannot be completely covered by regulatory restrictions. A journalist, for example, is far more likely to make low-risk decisions if he or she understands why and how glorifying a suicide report may result in subsequent suicidal behaviour.

The need for ongoing leadership

9.19Despite our conclusion that new standards are not suitable for enforcement by legislative means, there may still be a benefit in having a statutory obligation to prepare guidelines, even if enforcement of those guidelines operates outside the legislative framework. The statute could require the Minister of Health (or his or her delegate) to prepare a set of suicide reporting standards in consultation with mental health experts and representatives of the media and require the Minister to have an ongoing programme of dissemination, education and monitoring of the code.

9.20Whether or not these matters should be contained in statute depends upon an assessment of whether the relevant bodies are likely to undertake sufficient leadership of this task without a statutory requirement.

9.21In our view, as we described in Chapter 4, previous attempts at implementing voluntary guidelines in New Zealand have been ineffective because of the lack of success in securing agreement between opposing viewpoints, and the lack of an adequate ongoing programme to support the implementation of guidelines. Success in those matters is the key to effective guidelines.

9.22The Mindframe National Media Initiative in Australia provides a world leading example which has been proven effective.112 As noted in Chapter 4, under that programme, priority is given to building relationships and fostering influence with the media with the aim of encouraging responsible, accurate and sensitive reporting of suicide and mental illness. In addition to resources for its website and scientific evaluations of the effectiveness of the guidelines, Mindframe’s ongoing programme of relationship building includes:

That is a completely different way of thinking from the model where guidelines are published and it is simply hoped that the media will take note.

9.23It is apparent to us that Mindframe’s extensive work programme is supported by a significant commitment of government funds. However, we are of the view that no matter the size of the public financial support for the implementation of suicide reporting standards in New Zealand, a lot can be learned from the Australian model, and an ongoing programme to support the implementation of standards is essential to their success.

9.24It is our view that leadership by the Minister of Health is crucial to the success of a future set of standards for reporting suicide. For that reason we are also of the view that the Minister’s obligations in this regard should be in legislation. The statute should require the Minister to prepare a new set of standards for reporting suicide, in consultation with at least the media and mental health experts. It should also require the Minister to implement an ongoing programme to disseminate, promote and support the implementation of the standards, and to evaluate the success of those standards in achieving the goal of low-risk reporting of suicide. A legislative obligation would signal the priority that must be given to leadership in the preparation, dissemination, promotion, education and evaluation of a new set of guidelines.

100See Chapter 4 for a description of the background to guidelines and resource material for reporting suicide in New Zealand.
101Letter from Tim Murphy (Chairman of the Media Freedom Committee) to Pam Southey (Ministry of Justice) (7 June 2013).
102Letter from Tim Murphy (Chairman of the Media Freedom Committee) to Sir Grant Hammond (President of the Law Commission) (24 October 2013).
103Letter from Tim Murphy, above n 102.
104Annette L Beautrais and David M Fergusson “Media reporting of suicide in New Zealand: ‘more matter with less art’ (Hamlet, Shakespeare)” (2012) 125 NZMJ 5.
105Beautrais and Fergusson, above n 104.
106Letter from Tim Murphy (Chairman of the Media Freedom Committee) to Sir Grant Hammond (President of the Law Commission) (15 January 2014).
107Letter from Tim Murphy, above n 102.
108See New Zealand Press CouncilS J Nicol Against Craccom (Case Number 787, June 2000); Tony Booker Against Manawatu Evening Standard (Case Number 855, November 2001); Canterbury Suicide Project Against The Dominion Post (Case Number 910, February 2003); Kapiti College Against Kapiti News (Case Number 1084, March 2007); Paraparaumu College Against Kapiti News (Case Number 1085, March 2007). 
109Law Commission The News Media Meets ‘New Media’: Rights, Responsibilities and Regulation in the Digital Age (NZLC R128, 2013) at 130.
110The News Media Meets ‘New Media’, above n 109, at 160-163.
111The News Media Meets ‘New Media’, above n 109, at 170.
112Mindframe “Mindframe: National Media Initiative” <www.mindframe-media.info>.