Last week, the media reported new research in PLOS One journal investigating suicides in the US following the widely reported death by suicide of comedian Robin Williams.
The report noted that in the five months after the actor's death there were 10% more suicides than might be expected, or 1,841 extra cases. The researchers make clear that it is uncertain whether his death led to the increased number of suicides – but there did appear to be a connection between the events.
The research also looked at the reporting of suicide in global English-language news reports, to see how the actor’s suicide was reported. They highlight that the major US news media outlets’ coverage did not follow guidelines established by the World Health Organisation on the reporting of celebrity suicide, which are designed to prevent simulative acts.
The way in which the UK media has reported suicide has changed fundamentally over the years – in part due to charities working in the area of suicide prevention, like Samaritans, but also due to a real recognition amongst journalists of the impact of poor quality reporting on vulnerable individuals.
In 2006, the Editors' Code Committee amended the then Clause 5 of the Editors’ Code to cover the reporting of suicide. It was changed to make clear that, when reporting suicide, care should be taken to avoid excessive detail about the method used. This was extended further in 2016 when the reporting of suicide became the subject of a stand-alone clause and reference to the risk of ‘simulative acts’ was explicitly added, exemplifying how seriously the UK press industry takes the issue.
The Deputy Chair of our Complaints Committee, Richard Best, wrote about this in Press Gazette when the Code was amended to specifically include reference to simulative acts. He said: “…to put it bluntly, stories giving detailed accounts of methods could very reasonably be expected to contribute to deaths that otherwise might not have happened.”
Sometimes there may be specific justification for including detail about the method, for example because it is central to the proceedings at an inquest; in those instances this detail may not be “excessive”. However, journalists should still take great care in selecting what details to include in a story and should be prepared to explain the decision about what was included.
Last year, IPSO produced guidance on the reporting of deaths and inquests which includes advice about the reporting of suicides.
This year, we are going to be working with the Samaritans to help journalists to report on suicide whilst complying with the Editors’ Code of Practice.
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 the vulnerable at risk.
Samaritans are 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.