The balancing act – the importance of ethically reporting suicide

By Danielle Ford.

Headlines of the articles news.com.au published with graphic material in them.

There may never have been a time when suicide has been discussed more openly in the media than the last few months.

The Netflix series 13 Reasons Why has sparked vigorous, broad discussion and debate around the world regarding its graphic and confronting portrayal of suicide. You can hardly open any social media platform without being inundated with commentary on the show, both positive and negative.

Traditional news media outlets globally have also been vocal about the series, questioning whether the show is a responsible and safe representation of suicide, with Australian media being among the most critical. With Netflix announcing it’s picked the series up for a second season and will air it next year, it seems the discussion isn’t going away anytime soon.

The media’s condemnation is a case of ‘the pot calling the kettle black’, with news site news.com.au being critical of the show, despite publishing stories themselves that defied guidelines in depicting real suicides. It seems those news organisation has decided the guidelines for reporting on real suicides don’t apply to them.

Australia has some of the strictest and most comprehensive suicide reporting and portrayal guidelines in the world. The Australian Government partnered with the Hunter Institute of Mental Health to create Mindframe, a national media framework that aims to encourage “responsible, accurate and sensitive” representations of mental illness and suicide in Australia.

News.com.au’s coverage of former Disney actor Michael Mantenuto’s suicide breaches Mindframe’s responsible reporting guidelines, with the method of actor’s suicide given just three lines into the article. While this article does have a disclaimer at the bottom, stating the story is originally from UK publication The Sun and has been republished with permission, the story should have been edited to fit Australian standards. They have taken the time to update the helpline details at the bottom of the article to Australian ones to fit guidelines, so why not remove the one line that describes the method?

Mindframe’s guidelines state journalists should “minimise details about the death including method and location”.

This guideline was created to reduce the risk of “copycat” suicides, as studies have shown explicit or technical descriptions of methods and locations are linked to increased rates of suicide.

Similar to the coverage of Mantenuto’s death, news.com.au’s coverage of former NFL star Aaron Hernandez’s suicide contained detailed descriptions of how he took his own life. Even worse, they went on to post articles publishing his suicide notes in their entirety, going against another guideline set out by Mindframe.“Disclosing explicit content from a suicide note may impact on vulnerable people, including those bereaved, this information alone, without context, may not tell the whole story,” Mindframe states on their website.

Surprisingly, despite not following the specified guidelines themselves, news.com.au has been quick to condemn 13 Reasons Why for their graphic depictions of a character’s suicide.

Talking about the show, one of the site’s journalists writes “at the top of those concerns is the risk of contagion, the idea that someone with suicidal ideation could copy what they see”. So people at the site know about the risk of reporting the method of suicide, but just don’t exclude it themselves.

By publishing methods of suicide, the articles are just as dangerous to the public as the articles condemning 13 Reasons Why claim the show to be. It would do the staff at news.com.au good to refresh themselves on the Mindframe guidelines, as correct reporting on suicide is critically important.

 

If you or anyone else you know needs help please contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or the Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467.

 

 

 

 

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