IPSO complaints committee deputy chair Richard Best on how editors can save lives by responsibly reporting suicide
It’s got to top the long list of things that keep editors awake at night: the prospect of a reader killing themselves because of a story. It doesn’t get any worse.
But like so many of the landmines that line the route to producing a website, magazine or newspaper with compelling content, the obvious danger zones are often the least likely to blow up in your face.
Those can be planned and accounted for, you can seek expert help.
We all know that it’s the apparently innocuous and straightforward stories that sporadically turn round and bite you.
Any British journalist worth their salt will be aware that changes to the Editors’ Code at the beginning of the year included the introduction of a new Clause 5: “When reporting suicide, to prevent simulative acts care should be taken to avoid excessive detail of the method used, while taking into account the media’s right to report legal proceedings.”
While it’s unlikely to win any Plain English awards, it is the addition of the word “simulative” that is key, and should be a red flag to editors when they consider how they report suicides. The same term is likely to feature prominently in deliberations of IPSO’s Complaints Committee when considering a potential Clause 5 breach.
It’s been quite a journey for editors in what they can and can’t report in terms of suicide. It is hard to imagine that just a decade ago national newspapers and magazines published photographs of a woman jumping to her death from a London building.
Soon after this, a clause was introduced to the code that said: “When reporting suicide, care should be taken to avoid excessive detail about the method used.”
That wasn’t enough. Hence the new wording. But if the language now used is precise, the detail is in the interpretation of exactly what that means, of what constitutes “excessive detail”. And that is often likely to depend on the unique, and frequently finely balanced, detailed circumstances of each individual case.
Because what I never knew when I was an editor – and what has prompted me to write this – is that there is strong evidence to demonstrate that certain kinds of publicity surrounding suicide, whether news reports or a suicide in a TV drama, are capable of prompting a net increase in the number of people taking their own lives.
Those “simulative acts” may indeed use the methods portrayed in a drama or a news report. But the sad and surprising truth is that giving those details does not simply give another option to somebody who is going to choose to end their life anyway.
There is compelling research with frighteningly real examples to show that the rate of suicides using other methods does not decrease in direct proportion … it doesn’t usually decrease significantly at all. So to put it bluntly, stories giving detailed accounts of methods could very reasonably be expected to contribute to deaths that otherwise might not have happened.
So what constitutes excessive detail?
As you might have guessed, there are no hard and fast rules. But what you have to try and bear in mind is that there is a significant chance that someone reading that article may already be in crisis, their mind in a vulnerable state and increasingly open to suggestion. And your article could realistically prove the tipping point.
Even if they’re not vulnerable at the time, there’s a considerable body of anecdotal evidence from those who have survived serious attempts to show that people who are not considering suicide at all can, and do, store this type of information away, often for many months, and then have it to hand when their circumstances change.
It isn’t for me – or IPSO – to tell editors what to put in their magazines, newspapers or on their websites. We wouldn’t presume. But significant thought is needed, not least when deciding on the level of detail to report from an inquest.
If I was editing now, I wouldn’t, for example, give details of how somebody hanged themselves. I might say they had hanged themselves from a bridge. I quite possibly wouldn’t say which one. I might say they went to their bedroom and hanged themselves, but I now wouldn’t publish details of the ligature used or the point of suspension.
Of course there will be times when there is an argument for publishing some details. Sometimes this stuff is in the public domain anyway as a result of the web and social media – neither of which are subject to effective regulation.
Or maybe a lot of people saw it happen or were affected by the aftermath.
Maybe you’d feel that the detail was conspicuous by its absence.
Your shout, of course – the counter-arguments are ringing in my ears as I write this and mine is but one voice among 12 on the IPSO Complaints Committee and some might argue that even ‘bedroom’ and ‘bridge’ are a step too far – others may well have contrary opinions.
It would ultimately depend on the particular circumstances of each case. But maybe this is a good opportunity for the regulated media to lead by example and set the new tone.
Another key area to be aware of is publicising ‘new’ or unusual methods of suicide.
There is clear evidence from around the world to provide proof that if a new method of suicide receives significant publicity it is adopted by others – and again, there is no corresponding decrease in other methods.
In other words, the net number of suicides simply goes up – and that is an effect that can demonstrably last for years. What constitutes “excessive detail” in terms of a new method of suicide is something IPSO will need to consider carefully.
It goes against the grain to write an article that doesn’t contain specific evidence to back up an argument, but you don’t have to take my word for it.
When considering the new clause some members of the IPSO Complaints Committee felt ill-equipped to apply it and so invited Professor Keith Hawton, director of the Centre for Suicide Research at Oxford University, and Professor David Gunnell, an epidemiologist from Bristol University, to come and talk to us, along with Samaritans’ media advisor Lorna Fraser.
The studies they showed us provided what was to my mind powerful evidence about the net increase in suicides due to excessive detail in both news reports and dramas, from Europe and, notably, the Far East.
It would be self-defeating to go into the detail of that in a web-searchable article about suicide. But I know they would want to privately share their message – and, crucially their evidence – with media professionals.
It’s relatively easy for them to get in to talk to the editorial top brass in the nationals, but the regional press is a different matter.
At IPSO we are looking at ways we can support regional editors and journalists to understand their obligations under the Editors’ Code and would be pleased to facilitate a meeting or a more informal conversation to discuss these issues.
If you’re interested, email IPSO’s Head of Standards, Charlotte Urwin on firstname.lastname@example.org – or contact Lorna at the Samaritans (email@example.com), who would no doubt be happy to do the same.
Lorna is also available for pre-publication advice if there’s anything you’re uncertain of.
And consider including the number for the Samaritans on any story about suicide. Their research shows that some people who are vulnerable to detail about a suicide method are also open to the suggestion that they can call and get help.
Being pragmatic, offering an alternative could tip the balance in your favour if your article is the subject of a complaint to IPSO.
If you think that it’s a tiny minority you’re talking to, how about this for a statistic: an estimated one in 20 people makes a suicide attempt at some point in their lives.
Giving them details of an odds-on way to ‘succeed’ could inadvertently make all the difference between them taking their lives or not. This is particularly the case if that method has also been depicted as painless, again according to anecdotal evidence from survivors.
The majority of those people make a single attempt and then go on to live their lives. If their attempt is via a lethal method, they won’t have that chance.
I am a libertarian and a lifelong advocate of the right to freedom of expression, but there has to be a codicil about that freedom resulting in no harm to others. On this one, the evidence to me seems clear.
Next time you’re running a story on suicide please stop and consider a simple equation: weigh up the potential benefits to anybody of including those details, and the possibility that by leaving them out you might, realistically, save a life.
Richard Best is a former magazine and regional newspaper editor, and is deputy chair of the Complaints Committee of the Independent Press Standards Organisation.