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Journalists sceptical about rules on suicide reporting

Wednesday 24 November 2010 – for immediate release

Journalists sceptical about rules on suicide reporting

University of Otago Wellington health researcher and psychiatrist, Associate Professor Sunny Collings, will tell the Asia-Pacific Coroners’ Conference in Auckland today that many journalists are not familiar with Ministry of Health guidelines on the reporting of suicide, and that most do not use them.

However, she says nearly half of those interviewed are comfortable with the current law under the Coroners’ Act, feeling that restrictions on the reporting of suicide are flexible enough to meet the demands of important stories.

She says her study, published in Social Science and Medicine, interviewed fifteen New Zealand journalists at length, with experience ranging from two to over fifteen years. It showed that most journalists thought they knew the difference between responsible and irresponsible reporting, but only local research would convince them there was a risk of ‘copy-cat’ suicides if reporting rules were liberalised.

“Participants framed their work around the protection and education of the public and some are skeptical of the ‘copy-cat’ thesis. The reluctance to accept the idea that ‘copy-cat’ phenomena wouldn’t occur in New Zealand, unlike other countries, is puzzling to me as a researcher, as it is hard to think of reasons why New Zealand would be different.”

“Those interviewed tended to describe an idealized, responsible, and free media contributing to the public good by shedding light on suicide, by informing the public of the context in which it happens, and resisting editorial restrictions either through media guidelines or even the Coroner’s Act,” says Associate Professor Collings. “Almost all argued against the inclusion of explicit details however.”

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“Whether this caution would remain if the rules changed or were liberalised is another matter,” she says. “If journalism can improve public understanding of suicide and influence perceptions, then logically, there’s also the possibility of encouraging more suicide, as research shows has happened overseas with sensational reporting.”

Collings says the interviews in this qualitative study show that journalists are immersed in professional newsroom conventions and mores which resist existing suicide guidelines outside their editorial control. Best practice and attitudes are set by senior journalists and editors, who then influence young, ambitious reporters.

“One has to be aware of the fact that the commercial nature of news dictates that suicide is treated as an event, whose newsworthiness is in the inherent nature of the act, and the identity of the deceased,” she says.

Associate Professor Collings will tell the conference that a more effective way forward on this issue may be for health policymakers, coroners and journalists to work, with the support of people who are familiar with the research evidence, on developing new reporting protocols consistent with existing external guidelines for suicide reporting.

“This would allow the media to refine their approach to the responsible reporting of suicide, potentially encouraging a relatively cautious public health perspective within the framework of reporter-led journalism. This would help to ensure that public acknowledgement of suicide in the media needn’t be damaging”

This research was jointly funded by The University of Otago Summer Studentship programme and the Social Psychiatry and Population Mental Health Research Unit, University of Otago Wellington.

The Asia-Pacific Coroners’ Society Conference is being held at the Crowne Plaza in Auckland.


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