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Revised Restrictions for Suicide Reporting Recommended


Law Commission Recommends Revised Limits on the Current Restrictions for Suicide Reporting

The Law Commission is recommending revising the restrictions in the Coroners Act 2006 regarding reporting suicide. The new restrictions would be limited to public comment by any person of the method of the suicide death, the place of the suicide where it is suggestive of the method and the fact that the death is a suicide. However, a death would be able to be described as “suspected suicide” where that is supported by the facts.

It is recommended that other aspects of suicide reporting by the media should be the subject of a new set of voluntary reporting standards to be prepared by the Minister of Health in consultation with mental health experts and representatives of the media.

The recommendations are contained in the Law Commission’s Report, Suicide Reporting (NZLC R131) which was tabled in the House of Representatives today.

New Zealand has over 500 suicide deaths each year. While most of those do not attract widespread media attention, quite a few do, sometimes of an intense kind. The current restrictions contained in the Coroners Act 2006 reflect the concern that publication of descriptions of those deaths may lead to copycat suicides or undermine the coronial process.

The purpose of the Commission’s review was to examine whether the current restrictions strike the appropriate balance between the public health goal of reducing the likelihood of copycat suicide and the principle of freedom of expression.

The Commission reviewed the research examining that copycat effect. Law Commission President Sir Grant Hammond said that body of evidence is large and significant:

“There are now more than 80 scientific studies worldwide examining the association between media coverage of suicide and further suicidal behaviour. While there are some differences between them, they show widespread agreement that media depictions of suicide may precipitate suicidal behaviour in vulnerable people. In particular, they show that vulnerable people may be susceptible to descriptions of the method of suicide.”

The Commission considers that the current restrictions in the Coroners Act 2006 have not been effective. A particular problem is that the scope of the restrictions on reporting suicide is unclear. For example, there is debate as to whether every detail of the suicide death is restricted by the current legislation or just the method of that death. That uncertainty is undesirable and has, in some cases, inhibited positive, open discussion of suicide generally.

The Commission considers that broad legislative restrictions on reporting suicide cannot be justified as a reasonable limitation on freedom of expression under the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990. While the evidence of a copycat effect from reporting suicide is large and significant enough for people to take heed and voluntarily curb their behaviour, it is only the reporting of the method of suicide and the fact that the death is a suicide that can be justified as legislative prohibitions.

Other aspects of suicide reporting that may lead to copycat behaviour, such as sensationalising, normalising or glamorising suicide should be the subject of a new set of reporting standards for media. The Commission is recommending that the Minister of Health leads the process of developing those standards, as well as disseminating, promoting, supporting and evaluating them.

Sir Grant said, “Previously much effort has gone into the development of guidelines in New Zealand but agreement between the different interest groups has been difficult to achieve. We are optimistic that a more clearly confined legislative prohibition and strong leadership from the Minister of Health will produce a new context under which the process of reaching agreement on a new set of standards will be successful.”

-ENDS-

This media release and a pdf of the publication will be available from our website at
http://www.lawcom.govt.nz/project/media-reporting-suicide

Media Briefing on Suicide Reporting (NZLC R131, 2014)

The Commission was asked to undertake a first principles review of the restrictions in the Coroners Act 2006 on reporting suicide. In particular, it was asked to examine whether the current restrictions strike an appropriate balance between the public health goal of reducing the likelihood of copycat suicide and the principle of freedom of expression.

Background

For many years there has been concern about the appropriateness and effect of media and social media commentary on suicidal behaviour. Much of that concern has centred on the potential for suicide reporting to cause copycat behaviour. Many overseas jurisdictions have used a combination of voluntary guidelines and education programmes to ameliorate any negative effects. New Zealand is alone in using legislation to restrict reporting of suicide and has done so since 1951.

The case for reform

The current statutory restrictions are not working

• The ambit of the current restrictions is unclear.

• The restrictions are not being observed in many cases.

• They are not being enforced.


The evidence of copycat behaviour

We are satisfied that there is widespread agreement amongst experts in this field and world authorities, such as the World Health Organisation, that media reporting can lead to copycat suicidal behaviour by vulnerable people.

Freedom of expression

Reporting the details of a suicide is protected by the right to freedom of expression in section 14 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990. We have concluded that despite extensive evidence of a link between suicide reporting and copycat behaviour, it is only the evidence linking the reporting of the method of suicide to subsequent suicidal behaviour that is strong enough to justify a statutory restriction. 2


The Law Commission recommends:

• The current prohibitions should be repealed and replaced by provisions that only limit reporting the method of the suicide and the fact that the death was a suicide. However, a person may describe a death as a suspected suicide, where the facts support that.


• The restrictions should apply to any person who is reporting the details of a suicide death whether in mainstream media, social media, blogs, or otherwise. They should only apply to deaths that occur in New Zealand.


• A person should be able to apply to the Chief Coroner for an exemption from those restrictions, but applications are expected to be rare because the restrictions are narrowly framed. In granting an exemption, the Chief Coroner must consider that the risk of copycat behaviour is small and is outweighed by other public interest concerns.


• The Minister of Health should be required to prepare a new set of standards for reporting suicide. In doing that, the Minister must consult with representatives from the media and mental health interests.


• The Minister should also be required to implement an ongoing programme to disseminate, promote and support the standards and to evaluate their success at achieving low-risk suicide reporting.


Consequences of our recommendations (if adopted):

• There will be two clear messages:

o Reporting the method of a suicide runs a risk of causing copycat suicide behaviour; and

o A death may not be described as a suicide until a coroner has determined that fact; however, it may be described as a suspected suicide when that is supported by the facts.


• The new set of voluntary standards will help to educate people about the potential risks of other aspects of reporting suicide.


• A new ongoing programme to implement the standards will help to ensure that the risks of reporting suicide become a regular part of journalistic decision making.


• The recommendations do nothing to restrict discussions of suicide in general. In fact, most suicide prevention policies advocate talking openly about suicide, but doing so in a way that is sensitive to the bereaved, respectful of the deceased and does not further endanger vulnerable people.


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