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Anderton: SPINZ media seminar

Hon Jim Anderton

Minister of Agriculture, Minister for Biosecurity
Minister of Fisheries, Minister of Forestry
Associate Minister of Health
Associate Minister for Tertiary Education
11 September 2008 Speech

SPINZ media seminar,


Good morning and welcome.

I was honoured to accept your invitation to speak to this, the second in a series of three seminars organised by SPINZ to discuss the role of the news media in suicide prevention.

I understand yesterday's seminar in Auckland provoked some spirited and constructive debate.

I extend a warm welcome to our international guest, Associate Professor Jane Pirkis from the University of Melbourne. Professor Pirkis is renowned for her expertise in the area of suicide and the media, and we are extremely fortunate to have her with us.

I also welcome today's other speakers, Paul Thompson from Fairfax, Dr Sunny Collings, from the University of Otago and Jenny Skinner from the Ministry of Health.

Paul, in particular, has taken a close interest in the topic of today's seminar, and I acknowledge his support and contribution.

And we all have Merryn Statham and SPINZ to thank for the effort that has gone into arranging these events. A series of seminars focusing on suicide and the media is an innovative way to mark World Suicide Prevention Day.

This year, the theme of World Suicide Prevention Day is Think Globally, Plan Nationally, Act Locally.

Back in March this year, I launched the Suicide Prevention Action Plan, a four year plan that turns the New Zealand Suicide Prevention Strategy into a blueprint for action.

It sets out what we will do, when we will do it, and who is accountable. This is an excellent example of thinking globally, planning nationally, and acting locally.

One of the action plan's goals is to promote safe reporting and portrayal of suicidal behaviour by the media.

Through collaboration, protocols, education and support, the aim is to ensure good practice across all forms of media, including print, television, film, radio, drama and the internet, and across both fictional and non-fiction genres.

Although we have made a lot of good progress over recent years, and we have some runs on the board, there is still a long way to go.

Strategies and action plans are never enough. The real difference is made by the combined efforts and expertise of all of you here today, and the thousands not here who also take the time to care.

We all appreciate and value the importance of a free media in a democratic society. We understand that media organisations are businesses with shareholders to satisfy. We also understand the devastating impact of suicide.

These seminars are important because they bring together media professionals, policy makers, researchers and health professionals with the aim of exchanging information, respecting each other's views, and increasing understanding, toward the most worthy of outcomes - saving lives.

I think it's fair to say that the media industry has, on the whole, maintained its commitment to ensuring coverage of suicide is appropriate, constructive, balanced and comprehensive.

The Commonwealth Press Union suicide reporting protocols have proven to be effective. The news media is generally responsible in their approach to the reporting and portrayal of suicide. And they need to be if lives are to be saved.

Self-regulation, in this area, appears to be working - but it's something we need to constantly monitor, as last weekend's events show. Sunday News' coverage is a disgrace. It breaches all the protocols: it calls it an attempted suicide, it names the person involved, it ran a photograph of the location of the attempt, and described the method used. It seems that Sunday News have learnt nothing - 15 years ago, I had to take an injunction against them on behalf of my daughter.

I accept that journalists and editors are often in an unenviable position when covering these issues. They are trying to balance the desire of the public for information, with the need to treat bereaved, vulnerable, distressed and hurt individuals and communities sensitively.

At the same time, they are dealing with tight deadlines, the realities of the competitive media marketplace, and often declining staff numbers - leading to a media environment that seems to be getting even more pressured and strained, and possibly therefore less able to accommodate the wider responsibilities of good corporate citizenship.

Despite this, my impression is that when journalists and editors understand the issues surrounding suicide, the result is, more often than not, well-considered, safe and balanced reporting. But there is always scope to do better.

For example, in an increasingly global culture, one of the challenges is presenting news articles involving suicide from overseas sources in a way that is safe for New Zealanders. I am aware that some local media make efforts to reduce the potentially harmful features of such overseas reporting. But we need to do more to enlist the collaboration of others - particularly editors and journalists - not yet fully committed to the challenge.

We also need to consider the impact of rapid changes in technology that is leading to a blurring of traditional media platforms. For example, who would have thought ten years ago that we would have the internet and television on our phones, or archived news on demand?

What will the media landscape be like in another 10 years? And are our protocols and conventions robust enough to future proof the media's contribution in the struggle for suicide prevention?

We don't know everything about how to prevent suicide, but we know enough to make a difference. Suicide is complex and its prevention requires a whole range of different actions, by different sectors in society - including the media.

Insensitive and shoddy reporting and portrayal of suicide by the media can and does put vulnerable people at increased risk.

Of course, our biggest focus is on prevention and treatment of mental illness, and improving services to people who are experiencing suicidal thoughts or behaviours. This is likely to make the biggest inroads to reducing suicide.

Alongside this, it is always useful for us all to have ongoing conversations to increase understanding about how suicide can be reported and portrayed in ways that will reduce the risk of copycat suicides.

I am told that media reporting makes only a relatively small contribution to our overall suicide rates, around 5 percent by some estimates, but it is, regardless, an area where lives can be saved. Each of those people have family and friends, who will be damaged by the loss of their loved one. Each of those people is a part of our community. They deserve our protection and care, especially when they are so vulnerable.

And the ability of the news media to contribute to greater understanding and the right kind of awareness cannot be underestimated.

Suicide is not like other health issues. We cannot simply fund a social marketing campaign to raise awareness about suicide. In fact, that is likely to do more harm than good. Most people with depression don't look for - and won't accept - help, because of the stigma. Indeed, the World Health Organisation estimates that the actual global suicide figures could be 10 times higher than the official reported rate of 1 million people a year - reporting rates are limited because of the stigma. But this estimate makes even deaths as a result of wars or acts of terrorism seem modest!

That is why we here in New Zealand ran the hugely successful John Kirwan campaign on television, where he talks candidly about his experience of depression.

We know that mental illness, particularly depression, is one of the biggest risk factors for suicide. We know that the risk of suicide is increased twenty-fold for those with major depression.

So it stands to reason that encouraging people to seek help for depression and to support friends and family when they are distressed will make a significant contribution to suicide prevention.

And it stands to reason that reducing, and eventually eliminating, the stigma around mental illness will perhaps be one of our greatest contributions to suicide prevention.

It is obvious to me that the enormous power of the media to influence and persuade - and the ubiquitous presence of the media these days - means that sophisticated approaches are needed to live up to the responsibilities inherent with that power.

Suicide prevention initiatives need to be based on evidence, carefully planned and evaluated, and well coordinated. Moreover, they need to be multi-layered, they need to be clever, and they need to be collaborative.

I am proud to have launched the New Zealand Suicide Prevention Strategy and its accompanying Action Plan. Together they assist planning and co-ordination of suicide prevention activity. And I'm proud we fronted up with an extra $23 million to fund it.

But as I said earlier, plans and strategies, and even extra funding, are never enough.

The real difference is made by the collaborative efforts of people who are passionately committed to suicide prevention: researchers, clinicians, community groups, DHBs, government officials, politicians - and the news media.

I want to thank you for your work, advice and support. And I want to thank you for caring enough to be here today.

This is a timely and useful platform for us to come together to discuss and consider the many issues thrown up by the role of the media in suicide prevention.

Together you hold a vast wealth of knowledge and experience, and this is a great opportunity for discussion and collaboration, and to make further progress.

Thank you and I wish you well for today's seminar.


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