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October 14, 2020updated 07 Nov 2023 5:49am

Academics say alternative ways of telling suicide stories to ‘promote hope’ can save lives

By Hannah Storm

Responsible reporting about mental health and suicide can help prevent suicide, but sensationalist and stigmatising reporting puts vulnerable people at risk.

That is the view, which they say is backed by solid research, put forward by the creators of a toolkit on suicide reporting, Dr Ann Luce and Dr Sallyanne Duncan, who were among the speakers at an Ethical Journalism Network panel on the responsible coverage of suicide and mental health.

Designed to help journalists be confident their reporting is responsible, ethical and meets global standards, the Suicide Reporting Toolkit is for international use and based on World Health Organisation and National Union of Journalists guidelines, as well as IPSO, the Samaritans, the Society of Professional Journalists and others.

“Positive stories about mental health and suicide, about someone who has overcome a suicide attempt, overcome their mental health challenge…we do know those stories have preventative factors…globally, the research base is there for that,” said Dr Luce.

Dr Luce pointed to the example of Australia, where responsible reporting is believed to be a significant factor in the reduction in suicide levels there, and where an organisation called Mindframe, a coalition between the media, the government and the public, educates newsrooms about what journalists should and shouldn’t be doing.

Advocating a solutions journalism approach, Dr Duncan said: “It is not about journalists coming up with the solutions to overcome suicide or mental illness.

“It’s about presenting alternative ways of reporting the story, providing evidence-based context to their audiences in response to this public health issue. One that promotes hope.”

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The panellists noted there had been improvements in the coverage of mental health and suicide in recent years in the UK and the United States, and a greater public openness to talk about mental health.

But they said research carried out last year by Dr Luce and Dr Duncan showed that 60% of stories in the UK still did not reference a number for a support hotline.

“We have a massive body of research evidence that just by placing a helpline with the story, journalists can prevent suicide from happening,” Dr Luce said.

Dr Luce said she still met journalists globally who did not know of the existence of the World Health Organisation guidelines on the reporting of suicide which had been in place for two decades.

And she went on to explain there were still serious issues with reporting in some countries in Africa, Malaysia, India and China, including frame by frame coverage of suicide, as well as issues where sensationalised reporting from overseas news outlets had been carried verbatim by UK media outlets despite the fact that they were supposed to follow guidelines.

Dr Luce said this highlighted that ethical reporting of suicide was a global issue and one that needed a global response.

Moderator James Longman, a foreign correspondent for ABC News, highlighted the dilemma for journalists of reporting on the complexities of these issues, and how journalists often found themselves under pressure to simplify conversations around suicide and mental health.

He urged news managers to take a stand and change aspects of reporting after the fact where they are incorrect, and to recognise the toll that irresponsible reporting could have on those bereaved by suicide.

Richard Addy, media strategist and trustee of the mental health charity Mind, explained news organisations often showed an “enormous blind spot” in these conversations. He called on them to ensure they did not put the burden of responsibility with the individual journalist.

Conversations around ethical reporting needed to go alongside a recognition by newsrooms of their responsibility towards the wellbeing of their journalists, especially those from ethnic minority backgrounds and women.

Addy said this was being of particular importance during the global Covid-19 pandemic. As well as becoming more sensitive to their own journalists’ needs, newsrooms were realising they needed to become more attuned to their audiences.

“Over the last ten years or so, we find that news organisations are becoming much more sensitive to their audiences and their audiences’ needs,” he said.

“We know in the UK in people’s lifetimes, one in five people will have suicidal thoughts, so there is something there about being sensitive to where your audience is and journalists care about that dimension.”

Longman called for journalism that offered more positive stories about mental health, engaging audiences for longer, noting that younger audiences seemed much more open to conversations about mental health.

The panellists agreed this should serve as an incentive to the industry to be better at reporting on suicide and mental health, and incentive to ensure the current dearth in resources for journalism students was addressed.

Picture: Pexels/Karolina Grabowska

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