Editors have been urged to change the way their publications report on suicide and move away from “outdated language and stereotypes” in an open letter signed by more than 130 public figures and journalists.
The letter was written by Telegraph columnist Bryony Gordon and Luciana Berger MP and shared today to mark World Suicide Prevention Day.
Editors were urged to stop using the phrase “committed suicide” because of the suggestion it creates that suicide is “either a sin or a crime, or both” despite the fact it has not been illegal in the UK since 1961.
The letter said: “This form of words can imply that to take one’s own life is a selfish, cowardly, criminal or irreligious act, rather than the manifestation of extreme mental distress and unbearable pain.
“It also adds to the stigma and feelings of shame that prevent people from reaching out for help.”
Among the more than 130 signatories were TV journalist Richard Madeley, BBC Newsnight presenter Emily Maitlis (pictured), BBC Radio 5 Live broadcaster and journalist Emma Barnett, broadcaster June Sarpong, National Union of Journalists general secretary Michelle Stanistreet, and Times columnist Caitlin Moran.
The letter called on all sections of the media to instead use alternative phrases such as “died by suicide” and embed the change into their style guides – already the case at some newspapers such as the Guardian.
Due to the increased risk to bereaved families, friends and others affected by suicide, editors were also urged to avoid sensationalist headlines and prominent or repeated photos of the deceased, particularly in cases of a young person’s death or a suicide cluster.
They were also warned against “stereotypical” quotes from acquaintances or neighbours about the deceased’s state of mind before their death, and speculation about the reason for someone’s suicide.
“Suicide is often the culmination of a complex set of factors,” the letter said.
Other words to avoid include saying a suicide attempt was “easy”, “painless”, “quick” or “effective”.
The letter said that despite “excellent” guidelines published by Samaritans, “journalists often still revert to outdated language and stereotypes when reporting suicide”.
“The language and images we see and hear in the media naturally shape our understanding and view of the world,” it said.
“This is why journalism will always be so important – we are influenced by the kinds of stories you choose to cover, the language you use in those stories, and the images that are chosen to illustrate them.
“This places an enormous burden of responsibility on editors, reporters, photographers, sub-editors, producers, presenters and all of the other people engaged in bringing us news, editorial and comment.
“In recent years we have seen some real advances in the way that most of the media treats sensitive issues such as race, sex, gender, sexuality, ability, and religion. We have also witnessed advances in the ways that mental health issues and suicide are dealt with, with journalists displaying greater understanding, knowledge and sensitivity.
“You deserve praise for raising the profile of mental health and tackling the stigma that surrounds it. Many of us have seen first-hand what a positive difference this coverage makes to people’s lives.
“The evidenced risks associated with reporting of suicide, however, remain a real cause for concern.”
The letter asked that contact details for suicide prevention organisations such as Samaritans be included in any reports where suicide is a significant factor, and thanked news organisations that already do this.
It added that the intention was not to “censor media reporting”, but to encourage safer reporting and higher standards to ultimately reduce suicide rates.
A study published earlier this year found an increase of almost 10 per cent in the number of suicides in the US in the four months following the death of actor Robin Williams in 2014.
The letter said this “emphasises the responsibility that we all have when it comes to talking about suicide”.
The Sun today launched its “You’re Not Alone” campaign across print and digital to encourage readers to talk through their mental health problems with friends, family and professionals.
The week-long campaign began today on World Suicide Prevention Day with an interview in which Atomic Kitten singer Kerry Katona spoke about her mental health struggles and thoughts of suicide.
Other content will include an investigation into a “suicide video” trend on Youtube, advice on the top ten warning signs that family or friends may be struggling, and stories from survivors and relatives who have been “left behind”.
Laura Whitcombe, the Sun’s digital campaigns editor, said:”The Sun is committed to getting people talking about this important issue.
“For too long, stigma surrounding mental health has prevented people from accessing life-saving and life-changing support.
“We hope the stories we will tell across the campaign this week will help to change that.”
The UK’s largest press regulator, the Independent Press Standards Organisation, said earlier this year that “much progress” has been made in the way the UK media reports suicide, but added: “There is still more that can be done.”
IPSO issued guidance on the reporting of deaths and inquests last year, including advice about suicide reporting, and plans further guidance specifically on the sensitive and appropriate reporting of suicide.
In December 2015, it created a standalone clause of the Editors’ Code of Practice regarding suicide.
Clause 5 states: “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.”
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