Keith Perch, Head of Journalism at the University of Derby, opened the conference which tackled the issue on how best to report suicides in the media.
The editors sat quietly and pondered the question from the back of the room. ‘Why’, said the man ‘do you have to report suicides at all? You don’t report the fact that someone has died of a heart attack’, he added.
It was an uncomfortable question for many journalists, do we really need to tell the story of someone who takes their own life?
One editor I know has already decided not to cover all suicide inquests, but only the ones he considers are in the public interest.
Of course, public interest can cover a multitude of sins, but at least there’s an acknowledgement that there’s an issue in reporting suicides and this guidance allows time to consider publication or not.
This week I attended a conference at the University of Derby, there were around 30 editors there from Trinity Mirror and Johnston Press.
The point? To raise awareness over the dangers of reporting suicides, which can often lead to copy cat incidents.
Obviously, the media is not being asked to stop reporting the deaths, just be careful.
The Samaritans offer a best practice guide to the media and it has a hotline where its staff are willing to discuss the content of a story prior to publication.
Similarly, the Editors’ Code offers advice to journalists when reporting suicides which is based around not putting in too much information about method of death.
As Editor-in-Chief and deputy editor of the Stoke Sentinel I was faced with numerous issues surrounding the reporting of suicides. Two stood out.
One inquest involved the death of a man from carbon monoxide poisoning. The paper was reported by the charity Papyrus to the defunct Press Complaints Commission for breach of the Editors’ Code by giving too much detail.
Did we overstep the mark? Debatable. I argued and proved that we had not printed a huge amount of information which I detailed to the PCC, but what I still ponder today is perhaps whether there was too much information in the article.
Now, I’m sure that I would have removed even more information from the original article because the ground has shifted.
I wasn’t proud of being accused of putting in too much detail, this wasn’t a gung-ho attitude from me or the editorial team, but the matter did make me think twice when faced with similar dilemmas in later years.
There is a line in the sand as to how much can be reported, but drawing it accurately can be hard. There is a grey area between putting enough information in to tell the story fairly and putting in too much detail which could have repercussions.
Another issue I had was a number of suicides on a rural section of railway. We had what would be described as a cluster. For me, five was too many in a short space of time.
This figure rose to nine deaths in under two years and The Sentinel came in for a lot of criticism for reporting the deaths.
At first we reported the inquests, but as concern grew and local communities started to feel unhappy at the situation, we asked for something to be done to prevent what was happening.
It was through this campaigning that the Samaritans became actively involved within the communities and with the newspaper and certain safety measures such as new fencing and CCTV cameras were put up on the stretch of line.
The result is, as far as I know, that there has not been a suicide on this stretch of line for several years. If we hadn’t raised the issue would more people have died?
On the flip side, was it because of the reporting that there were nine deaths? Reflecting on this time, we were careful on the reporting and despite this the incidents continued to happen.
It was only after we took action with the help of the railway authorities and the Samaritans that the deaths stopped.
However, one of the growing issues today is the response on social media to suicides, particularly the death of a teenager.
The outpouring of grief is difficult to report. Sorry, that’s wrong, it’s not difficult, the difficulty is getting it right. It is all too easy to lift the social media quotes and build a story around that.
How often do you see words like ‘another angel in heaven’ followed by ‘we’ll be with you in heaven soon.’
The sentiment that someone will join their friend in heaven soon shouldn’t be taken literally, but often impressionable children may just do that.
Also, a lot of social media almost glamorises suicide, this is a long distance from the reality.
The response on sites such as Facebook look easy pickings for journalists attempting to get a reaction to the death, but the media has to be careful how it uses this information and reflects the outpouring of grief.
Simple phrases like ‘another angel in heaven’ pulls on the heart-strings and can entice vulnerable people to believe that suicide, wrongly, has some sort of romance about it. It hasn’t.
Most senior editorial staff believe more than ever that they have to be careful in reporting suicides.
One of our journalism students at the University of Derby, Eleanor Crone, in her research on reporting suicides in The Sun and the Nottingham Post ,showed that the press has become more alert to its responsibilities.
But being careful in reporting suicides and the drive to get page views, provides editors with dilemmas.
Editors know that they have a responsibility to report some suicides that are in the public interest.
But the pressure to ensure they fulfil their requirements in getting an audience will inevitably lead to them having to make difficult decisions about pushing the boundaries to maximise page views.
Some of you reading this may gasp in horror, but the reality is that good court copy, whether from an inquest, crown or magistrates court does well online.
And undoubtedly, in the pressure cooker world of an editorial room where staff are forever watching the audience stats, that fine line of reporting responsibly or chasing audience may become blurred.
This isn’t just something I believe, it is also what a number of editors talked about on the day of the conference.
On the flip-side, the other point made to me was that often the reason for not covering inquests was not based on a moral opinion but more down to lack of resources.
There is also real audience pressure, not just the stats.
With the world in conversation it is impossible to control certain web platforms from having a full and frank discussion about a suicide.
They are not governed or feel responsible to abide by the advice on reporting suicides.
This often leads to criticism of the main media for failing to report as much information and accusations of a cover up.
Once again, more pressure for an editor to decide how much can and cannot be written.
What we do know is that at least the debate is ongoing and this can only help editorial staff to make better, more informed decisions in the future when it comes to covering suicides.
Just one last thought, it seems this is often forgotten. Only the coroner can decide if a death is a suicide, the press should not speculate.