In the third in our series of blogs on the reporting of suicide, Charlotte Urwin, Head of Standards, looks at some of the specific challenges journalists face when reporting on suicides that take place at specific locations.
Suicide is a significant social inequality and public health issue, with more than 6,000 people across the UK and ROI taking their own lives each year, and tens of thousands more attempting to.
Some places where people go to take their own lives become strongly associated with suicide, which can encourage more people to travel to that location to end their lives.
Earlier this week I joined a meeting of government agencies, local charities and mental health providers who meet regularly to talk about the steps they take to reduce the number of suicide attempts at a well-known spot in the UK. I was there to talk about media reporting of suicides, as well as IPSO’s ongoing work to support editors and journalists to report suicide responsibly.
The Samaritans recommend that journalists shouldn’t describe places as ‘suicide hotspots’ because this can encourage vulnerable people to travel to that location with the intention of taking their life. Certainly, meeting attendees told me that a significant number of people who go to the location we were discussing to take their life were not local to the area and some had travelled significant distances to reach it.
The reporting of suicide presents a real challenge for journalists, who have to balance reporting on a sensitive issue that is in the public interest, while managing the associated risk of inadvertently encouraging imitational behaviour by those who may be vulnerable.
The Editors’ Code of Practice, the set of rules that publications that are members of IPSO must follow, includes a clause relating to the reporting of suicide and explicitly identifies the risk of ‘simulative acts’. The Code says that journalists should take particular care when reporting on suicide to ensure that they do not provide excessive detail of the method used, which might result in simulative acts.
At the meeting, we talked about whether journalists should specify the location where someone has gone to take their life, if that location is a key part of that person’s suicide. Could the details of a location be considered part of a method of suicide? I’d be interested in hearing journalists’ thoughts on this point.
Deaths are public matters and the death of an individual is a matter of public record and their death may affect a community as well as those who knew the individual personally. Journalists have a basic right to report the fact of a person’s death, even if surviving family members would prefer for there to be no reporting and regard the death as private.
There is a definite public interest in the reporting of suicide: responsible reporting can improve public understanding of the issue and encourage vulnerable people to seek help and to speak about suicidal feelings.
Ultimately, we can only reduce the numbers of suicides each year if we continue to talk about the issue. Through information, training and guidance, IPSO can help journalists to cover this important topic without putting vulnerable people at risk.
Samaritans’ is helpline available round the clock, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, whatever you are going through. It’s free to call them on 116 123 and you don't have to be suicidal to call them.