More than 6,000 people take their own lives by suicide in the UK every year. The World Health Organization estimates that for each suicide, there may be more than 20 suicide attempts.
Behind these statistics are individuals, families and communities left devastated by the impact of a loved one taking their own life. As someone whose family has had to deal with suicide, I know this very well.
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.
In 2006, having seen evidence of the dangers of imitative suicides linked to certain types of reporting, the Editors' Code Committee amended the then Clause 5 of the Editors’ Code to cover the reporting of suicide. It was changed to include specifically 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 the risk of ‘simulative acts’ was explicitly added, exemplifying how seriously the UK press industry takes the issue.
Earlier this week, facilitated by IPSO and the Dept. of Journalism at Derby University, more than 30 local and regional newspaper editors listened to three presentations on the impact of the reporting of suicide.
David Gunnell, Professor of Epidemiology at the University of Bristol, outlined the extent of academic research from around the world that demonstrates a link between inappropriate media portrayal of suicide and increases in suicide rates.
This is certainly not a recent phenomenon. Goethe’s 1774 novel ‘The Sorrows of Young Werther’ (in which Werther kills himself) is said to have led to a spate of imitative suicide which resulted in the novel being banned in Denmark and Italy.
Prof. Gunnell highlighted contemporary cases in Asia and closer to home in Germany following the death of German international goalkeeper Robert Enke, who took his own life in 2009. Following Enke’s death and the reporting around it, there was a noticeable and measurable increase in suicides using the same method.
Lorna Fraser, Samaritans’ Media Adviser, made a presentation looking at the challenges around suicide and coverage in the UK press following various celebrity deaths. She highlighted some best practice, reminding everyone of the Samaritans media guide and the availability of newsroom training and pre-publication advice from the charity.
One of Derby’s journalism students, Eleanor Crone, had undertaken a piece of very interesting research looking in detail at the reporting of suicide in both national and local titles in the six months following the death of Robin Williams in 2014. She compared that reporting with a similar time period prior to the 2006 changes to the Editors’ Code and concluded that recent coverage, while still not perfect, had seen a marked improvement.
Listening to the panel discussion that followed, it struck me that while there is a definite public interest in reporting suicide, there’s a balance to be had around information and the language, detail and tone of coverage. It’s also clear that responsible reporting of suicide can help reduce the taboo around talking about suicidal feelings and encourage people to seek help.
It remains rare that the press get it wrong on the reporting of suicide – since September 2014, IPSO has upheld only one complaint and resolved three between publication and complainant – but this week’s extremely useful session shows a very real commitment to keep it that way.
Samaritans are available round the clock, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. It’s free to call them on 116 123 and you don't have to be suicidal to call them.
Lorna Fraser, Samaritans’ Media Adviser, can be contacted direct at firstname.lastname@example.org or 020 8394 8377 or 07850 312224.