In the next in our series of blogs with Samaritans, Lorna Fraser, Executive Lead of their Media Advisory Service, looks at reporting on suicides which take place at outdoor locations and gives advice to journalists on some things to consider if they cover such incidents. She also discusses, from Samaritans’ perspective, some of the challenges of striking a balance between responsible reporting in the public interest and avoiding details which could put vulnerable people at risk.
As I’ve mentioned in previous blogs, extensive research carried out across the world over the last five decades links certain types of media reporting with increases in suicide rates. The risk of media coverage negatively influencing people who may be vulnerable significantly increases if details of suicide methods are included, stories are placed prominently, and the coverage is sensational and/or extensive.
In a previous blog, IPSO’s Head of Standards Charlotte Urwin looked at looked at some of the potential difficulties journalists face when reporting on suicides that take place at certain locations, including how the Editors’ Code applies. In this blog I’ll discuss why these incidents can make it particularly challenging to strike a balance between reporting what is in the public interest while avoiding details that could put members of the public at risk, including some advice which we at Samaritans would encourage journalists to consider.
Suicides that take place at outdoor locations are often public incidents, which can distress witnesses and are more likely to attract media attention, particularly if there have been previous suicides at the same location. Following detailed coverage of incidents at cliffs, bridges, rail sites and high-rise buildings, we are more likely to see an increase in suicides, or attempted suicides at that location, or similar locations.
Media reports which focus intensely on suicide methods, highlighting them in the headline, including photographs of the location and details of previous incidents, can draw other vulnerable people to the same location to make an attempt on their life. Stories reported in this way also increase the likelihood of a site becoming a known suicide location.
A safer approach is to focus on the essential information the public needs to be aware of, such as travel disruption or road closures, giving as little attention to the nature of the incident as possible.
Samaritans suggest some specific points to consider, including:
These incidents are one of the rare exceptions where it is often safer not to include Samaritans’ helpline number at the end of the piece, as this could imply that the incident is suicide-related.
Perhaps one of the less obvious risky areas when it comes to outdoor locations is campaigning activity – for example calling for safety measures to be installed at a site. These campaigns often highlight location and method and can contribute to places becoming known suicide locations.
While the media can be a great vehicle for bringing these issues into the public domain and supporting efforts to apply pressure for action to be taken, there are evidenced risks with highlighting suicide methods and locations, even if they are part of a safety campaign. As with all reporting relating to suicide, vulnerable people can be exposed to this coverage, which can increase the risk of encouraging imitational suicidal behaviour.
There are similar risks associated with publishing people’s real-life experiences. While we encourage media to cover people’s stories of recovery, as these can be a very powerful way of encouraging people to reach out for support and can help to prevent suicides, these stories are much safer without any mention of suicide methods.
Another area of concern are stories covering awards for bravery when a suicide has been prevented. Again, these stories can serve as a powerful reminder that suicide is preventable and highlight the importance of talking if you’re struggling with your mental health or if you’re worried about someone else. However, it is far safer to cover such stories without including the suicide method.
In addition to our guidelines for reporting suicide Samaritans provides a media advice service, offering pre-publication support to journalists and programme makers. We can help you ensure any suicide-related content you publish is as safe as possible.
If you’re covering a story or feature which includes a suicide element, you can speak to one of our advisers to discuss your piece. Clearly we’re not there to make editorial decisions, our role is to help you avoid areas of risk and give advice on what may also be helpful to include.
We also visit news outlets up and down the country to deliver ‘Suicide in the Media’ advice sessions. These are 60 to 90-minute sessions covering the main findings from the research evidence, common challenges for journalists and a section on coverage that can help to prevent suicides.
In cases where a story is to be reported as a suicide, for example following the outcome of an inquest, avoid highlighting the location of the death. Please also encourage readers to reach out for help if they are struggling. Anyone can call Samaritans’ 24-hour helpline for free on 116123, or email email@example.com or visit their local branch to speak to someone face-to-face (opening times are available on our website samaritans.org/branches)
Our Media Advisory team can be reached on 0208 394 8377/020 3874 9186, out-of-hours on 07850 312224 or email firstname.lastname@example.org