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Guidelines for reporting suicide now encompass online and social media

Journalists working in online news and social media in Australia have for the first time been included in guidelines for reporting suicide.

Words by Daryl Holland

The revamped guidelines, crafted by journalists and suicide prevention experts, make it clear that online journalists should adhere to the same rules as those working in print.

The Mindframe National Media Initiative has been producing guidelines for reporting suicide and mental illness since 2002. “Reporting Suicide and Mental Illness: A Mindframe resource for media professionals” is now in its seventh edition.

“We’re seen as international leaders in working with the media,” said Mark Bryant, the program manager at Mindframe.

More Australians die at their own hand than from car accidents, and suicides can have a devastating and lasting impact on families and local communities. Researchers have found that there is a risk that suicide stories can inspire copycats, and so suicides are not generally reported in the media unless there is a public interest in doing so.

“There are loads of [guidelines] around the world, and they all say similar things, but most of them are just developed and then mailed out and then you hope for the best, whereas Mindframe has done a really good job of working with media professionals.” — researcher Jane Pirkis

Celebrity and other high-profile suicides will inevitably be reported but even then, details that may be of interest to the reader and are known to the journalist are often deliberately censored.

The Mindframe guidelines state that when there is a public interest in reporting suicide, journalists should leave out details about method and location, and include help-seeking advice for people who may be at risk of suicide.

Suicide prevention experts have commended the Australian guidelines.

Professor Jane Pirkis, a world authority on the impact of suicide reporting, said: “The whole Mindframe program is an excellent example of where the mental health and suicide prevention centres work closely with the media to develop guidelines that are really quite well received, I think. And much better disseminated than guidelines elsewhere.

“There are loads of [guidelines] around the world, and they all say similar things, but most of them are just developed and then mailed out and then you hope for the best, whereas Mindframe has done a really good job of working with media professionals.”

And journalists appear keen to get it right. Mr Bryant said there was a 700 per cent increase in resource downloads from the Mindframe website after the death of TV personality Charlotte Dawson. 

However, with the emergence of online media and social media, everything was amplified and this, according to Mr Bryant, had “ramifications”.

The Mindframe guidelines reflect this, stating: “While evidence is still emerging, recommendations should also be applied to the online environment, including social media. Given the instant nature and potential reach of online posts, implementing procedures to monitor and manage message boards for posts that may be harmful or from people in crisis is recommended.”

“We don’t just willy nilly cover suicides anyway. So the same discipline that applies in any coverage of suicide certainly applies online.” — Age editor-in-chief Andrew Holden 

Even with the addition of online reporting, the new guidelines are shorter and simpler than previous versions. This is based on feedback from increasingly time-poor journalists and editors.

The editor-in-chief of The Age, Andrew Holden, told The Citizen that journalists reporting suicides needed “very clear guidance . . . short and sharp pieces of advice that they can respond to quickly when they’re under deadline pressure”.

However, Mr Holden said The Age’s online department had not implemented any new procedures based on the new guidelines, which were released on April 1. He said it was “early days . . . and most of the stories written for online are done out of the general newsroom anyway”.

“We don’t just willy nilly cover suicides anyway,” said Mr Holden. “So the same discipline that applies in any coverage of suicide certainly applies online.” 

Professor Pirkis, who is the director of the Centre for Health Policy, Programs and Economics at the University of Melbourne, said some people “quibble” about whether there is a link between inflammatory or irresponsible media reporting and spikes in suicide rates, but she finds the evidence “compelling”.

She said a US study that was published recently in Lancet Psychiatry confirmed that over-reporting of suicides led to a spike in the suicide rate.

But she also said the media could have a positive impact: “There are roles in public education about suicide. There are roles in providing avenues for help seeking.”

Mindframe’s Mr Bryant said that since 1997 there had been a two-fold increase in reporting of suicides by Australian media, and yet the suicide rate had gone down. He said this was because the quality of stories had improved.

Jeremy Little of SANE Australia, a mental illness support charity, said reporting of suicide had greatly improved since 1999. That was the year the charity launched StigmaWatch, which collects positive and negative media portrayals of mental illness and suicide.

He said many of the stories that were now getting flagged as inappropriate were sourced from other countries, and celebrity suicides were particularly problematic because Australian media were “greatly reliant on international news agencies” for those stories. They tended to be supplied by agencies that did not have the same culture of responsible reporting as Australian media organisations.

Mr Holden said although The Age exercised “severe caution” about describing suicide methods, there were exceptions. He cited the voluntary euthanasia debate as a recent example, because “medical professionals [were] coming out and identifying the drug that they used to help somebody die”. He said the newspaper reported the name of the drug because it was in a “newsworthy” context.

Mindframe is funded by the Federal Government and operates out of the Hunter Institute of Mental Health.

For help or information contact:

Lifeline 13 11 14

Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467

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