Life, death, journalism, free speech and censorship

[I wrote this as a comment in response to a post on The Free Speech Blog : Official blog of Index on Censorship entitled “Let’s not make suicide a taboo“. Since it contained many links which the commenting system rejected as spam I posted a stripped version over there with the information that a linked version would be here. Apologies for the interruption to the usual service, whatever that might be.]

I am at a loss to understand what a post of this nature is doing on the blog of a reputable organisation campaigning against censorship. You conflate suggested media guidelines for reporting on an issue of – literally – life and death importance with censorship. It is misleading and profoundly irresponsible.

Within the first three paragraphs you link the “dangers in silence” to a suggestion by the Samaritans that coverage of a recent double suicide may have prompted a second, similar incident. The evidence linking copycat suicides and social contagion as a result of media reporting is compelling as documented in the Samaritans media guidelines “Copycat suicides and media reporting (to which you do not link).

You say it’s important for journalists to be reminded of the media guidelines produced by organisations such as MediaWise and the Samaritans. Neither organisation expresses the opinion or the aspiration that the issue of suicide should not be discussed. The Samaritans media guidelines on Reporting Suicide (to which you also do not link) include specific recommendations encouraging coverage (points 8, 9 and 12).

However, as you will no doubt be aware, both guidelines you mention cite clear research evidence of the direct and often substantial negative effects – an increase in deaths by suicide and the attendant suffering such events cause – should the discussion/reporting cover certain clearly defined territory, most importantly explicit details of the method used. Or, to quote the author of the CPA “Media Guidelines for Reporting Suicide” – “The take-home message is that there is solid evidence in the psychiatric literature that there are dangerous and safe ways of reporting suicide.”

Your central proposition appears to be that guidelines for journalists on the reporting of suicide pose “a risk to the public interest… What if it becomes the norm not to cover suicides?”

The substantiating evidence that this is not “fanciful” is what you call “strong hints” at the possibility of self-censorship in the MediaWise study and undocumented anecdotal evidence that there are some local papers which “sometimes never” mention suicide.

You then discuss “some peculiar modern perceptions of privacy” which you see as a potential bar to the reporting of suicide. And yet on page 4 of the MediaWise document “Sensitive Coverage Saves Lives” you will no doubt have noted the following:

As far back as 1841 doctor and statistician William Farr considered that:

“no fact is better established in science than that suicide (and murder may perhaps be added) is often committed from imitation . . . Do the advantages of publicity counterbalance the evils attendant on one such death? Why should cases of suicide be recorded at length in the papers any more than cases of fever?”

You will of course be aware that the provision in the draft Coroners and Justice Bill giving coroners power to ban publication of the name of the deceased in some cases of apparent suicide to protect bereaved relatives from unnecessary or gratuitous invasion of their privacy was withdrawn before the Bill became law in 2009. This was to be replaced by “consideration” of “how current codes of conduct for the media might be refined to ensure there is appropriate emphasis on the need for sensitive reporting” (p16). It seems, therefore, that your complaint about “some peculiar modern perceptions of privacy” has already been noted by the “officialdom” to whom “it is not satisfactory to leave important matters”.

If one is to deduce from your article that journalists, rather than “officialdom” would be best to sort out “important matters”, and further to deduce that these “important matters” are whether or not the news media report suicide, and/or how they do it, then I refer you again to the MediaWise report you cite. On pages 19-20 are the details of round-table (ie not “behind closed doors”) discussions designed to bring media practitioners and mental health agencies together. Not one single journalist turned up to any of them.

In your penultimate paragraph you describe suicides as “deaths which seem out of the ordinary”. According to the National Office of Statistics deaths on the roads in 2007 were 5.4 per 100,000 population. However in the same year the NOS says death by suicide among men in the UK was 16.8 per 100,000 and among women 5.0 per 100,000 population. In other words for every one person killed in a car accident there are five people who die as a result of suicide. This is not an “out of the ordinary” problem.

Suicide is a major public health challenge, so much so that government has put in place the National Suicide Prevention Strategy for England, chooselife in Scotland and Talk to me in Wales. Each of them contains, as a central plank of its strategy, working with the media towards responsible reporting of suicide.

And the danger to “public interest” if your “non-fanciful” self-censorship by the media of suicide coverage should come about? That the public would be “poorly informed” about suicide, “knowing considerably less”.

If the information you fear might be repressed by journalists is of the quality of that of your post the public will have been done a service – should journalists indeed be cowed into silence by guidelines. If the information in your post bears any relationship to that which students of journalism are provided with on their courses then we still have a very long way to go in tackling this very real, very complex and very important issue.

3 Replies to “Life, death, journalism, free speech and censorship”

  1. Still a huge taboo, which only adds to the pain of those affected.
    I’m dubious about suicide reporting contributing to ‘copycat’ suicides. The guy who comments after you on the blog calls the research into question… One thing we know is we can never ask the person concerned after the event. And as one of my supervisors used to say ‘there is no story to suicide…’

  2. Just followed the link to the Samaritans site on copycat and contagion. Just so you know. Still thinking about the implications.

  3. I’ve been out being a parent helper all day, otherwise would have responded sooner.

    I’m glad you parsed for me what the subsequent comment said, I couldn’t make head nor tail of it myself.

    And of course you are in my thoughts when I write such things. With others. It has been the thought of you, and others, that has kept me going in the past. I can say this here, and without, I hope, it seeming melodramatic. It’s a statement of fact.

    I find the evidence put forward of copycat and contagion pretty compelling myself, but obviously given the numbers not every suicide results in either, nor could that be seen to be the primary reason for someone to take their own life.

    The nuances between research results and reporting are complex, it’s never been a straightforward issue. What pissed me off most was such a simplistic half cock load of bull being put forward on an anti-censorship platform. Perhaps I should have saved myself a lot of time and just put that as the comment 🙂

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