Debate continues on opening up suicide reporting

  • 13/09/2013

The Chief Coroner and an organisation representing journalists are calling for suicide reporting rules to be relaxed, saying people want more information about the issue.

Judge Neil MacLean released the 2012/13 provisional suicide statistics last month in the midst of a review of the legislation which controls how the media may report on individual suicides.

Currently, information about individual deaths in New Zealand are not allowed to be published by media unless it is approved by a coroner, a process which can take up to two years to complete.

Judge MacLean says easing those rules could help bring the suicide rate down.

"I think there's a dawning realisation across the community who want information, that look, it's okay to talk about it – in fact we encourage talking about it."

The Media Freedom Committee, one of several organisations representing journalists in New Zealand, would also like to see the rules reviewed.

Committee member Clive Lind, Editorial Development Manager at Fairfax Media, wants to see open reporting of suicides except where circumstances dictate information should be suppressed, rather than the current system where the opposite is the case.

A personal view

Fi Spetznar-Perez knows about the toll of suicide. After her husband Jerome killed himself, she dedicated herself to working with the Taranaki Suicide Prevention Co-ordination Group.

She agrees with Mr Lind that the current legislation does restrict the media, but says there need to be boundaries around the reporting of individual suicides.

"The way my husband died is not important for anyone else. No one else needs to know what that looked like. What is important is what lead him up to that point where he thought that was his only choice," she says.

"There is nothing to be gained by sensationalising the manner in which someone died. That is not necessary."

But Ms Spetznar-Perez does believe the media can help.

"I think they play a pivotal role, absolutely pivotal. People are restricted in the way they can grieve a suicide because it's not talked about. A lot of things are normalised within our society because of media. [But] we don't talk about suicide at all."

The academic perception

The Mental Health Foundation is cautious about the prospect of easing rules to allow the media more leeway.

Moira Clunie, the organisation's Suicide Prevention Information Development Manager, says journalists already struggle to meet responsible reporting guidelines issued by the foundation, which can be dangerous.

"Most researchers would say that it's pretty unequivocal that reporting can lead to increased suicidal behaviour," she says.

But Mr Lind says some local research contradicts this, and Massey University professor James Hollings – who has studied the effect - says it is lower than those reports suggest and depends on how a suicide is reported, not that it is.

"We have concentrated too much on the media effect on suicidal individuals and ignored the media effect of censorship on the rest of society; this has skewed the discourse and meant we spend too much time talking about censorship and not enough about the real drivers of suicide," says Mr Hollings.

Is a stronger deterrent needed?

Though breaching suppression orders is against the law – carrying a maximum fine of $5000 for organisations and $1000 for individuals who publish details - media organisations are not often penalised, a point Judge MacLean acknowledges.

"It's the high-profile ones that create the problems, they really test the issue. But you can understand why; there is huge public interest and we've got to try and get the balance right because behind even in the most high-profile of suicides there is a suffering family and relatives and friends," he says.

Widow Ms Spetznar-Perez believes there needs to be a stronger disincentive in order to prevent breaches.

"They close down pubs if they sell to underage people; if you breach the Act then there should be some severe penalty. Perhaps they should say 'you can't publish a paper for a day' - now that would stop it."

The current law means when individual suicides are discussed, code words are often used: "The death was not suspicious," "Police are not seeking anybody in relation to the death".

Mr Lind says Fairfax allows its journalists to use the words "suspected suicide" if they are certain of their facts, and does not think journalists should be punished for breaching suppression.

"It's not really a case of getting away scot free, these are cases that are very much in the public eye," he says.

"You have to distort your story to throw in code words and things like that, and that's not what we're in the business to do. We're there to be honest, to get the story out and to report it accurately."

The impact of social media

Ms Spetznar-Perez also believes journalists could be better utilised to ensure facts are established around deaths and dispel harmful rumours in the community.

"We have social media like Facebook and Twitter and everyone's talking about it, [but] there are no truths. It's all made up and you have fanciful stories about what had occurred, as opposed to we could have mainstream journalism that gives us a basic idea of what's going on."

The Law Commission's review will have a focus on social media and whether or not the current legislation needs to be expanded to include those sites.

"The bigger problem is probably social media rather than the traditional print and electronic media," says the commission's president Sir Grant Hammond. "If one of these awful events occurs, social media's onto it in a flash and if it's a kid, soon every kid in town knows."

But Fairfax's Mr Lind says including social media in the current legislation is a flawed idea.

"That is an entirely different proposition. No suppression orders will stop that sort of thing."

Judge MacLean says he believes the media can be responsible in their reporting of suicides if the legislation is eased - or even scrapped.

"Journalists are actually real people, most of them have had an experience of someone close to them committing suicide, the last thing any responsible journalist wants is to have on their conscience is that the way they reported a story actually led to someone else doing it."

The Law Commission's review is due to be completed next year. Sir Grant says the commission will be consulting with various media agencies and public health bodies on the issue.

In New Zealand free, confidential help is available through the following organisations:

Ministry of Health depression helpline (8am – midnight): 0800 111 757

Lifeline (24 hours): 0800 543 354

The Lowdown: (8am – midnight) free text 5626 or call 0800 111 757 (youth-oriented)

The Rural Support Trust (24 hours): 0800 787 254

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source: newshub archive