Coverage of Robin Williams’ death is a reminder of the need for responsible reporting

Press guidelines for appropriate coverage of suicide stories have been in place for a long time, but are they actually being followed?c

by WAN-IFRA Staff | August 21, 2014

With numerous international studies demonstrating a clear link between sensationalised media coverage of suicide stories and copycat behaviour in the ensuing period, there is a strong case for sensitive and considered coverage. Most exceptionally, following Marilyn Monroe’s suicide in 1962, suicide rates increased by 12 percent in the month which followed.

In the wake of extensive international media coverage of actor Robin Williams’ death by suicide, the World Editors Forum sought the advice and reaction of a number of experts, including Jaelea Skehan, Director of the Hunter Institute of Mental Health, which has been managing the Mindframe national media initiative in Australia for 12 years.

“We know that reporting on individual deaths by suicide carries with it a risk that others vulnerable to suicide may be influenced by the reporting. So avoiding the word suicide in the headline or lead is really to try and avoid prominence of the story to those who may be vulnerable,” Skehan said.

Guidelines from international suicide prevention network Samaritans, as well as the Editors’ Code in the UK and Suicide Prevention Resource Center‘s press guidelines in the US, have been in place for some time now, with similar guidelines existing in more than 30 countries. However, as Skehan pointed out, “Guidelines are completely inefficient unless there is an active strategy to build partnerships between the media and the health sector and unless there are opportunities for journalists to understand not just what they recommend but why. Guidelines are not, and should never be, about censorship of the media. Instead they should provide journalists with additional information and recommendations to make informed decisions about whether to report and how to report.

“The problem is, that many of the guidelines, and even codes of practice, are not actively promoted or reinforced with journalists. Codes of practice are only enforced following a complaint (which means the onus is on the community and not the media regulators) and guidelines developed by health organisations are often not accompanied by an active communication and engagement strategy.”

Founder and Director of the Ethical Journalism NetworkAidan White, was not impressed by media coverage of Robin Williams’ death, telling the World Editors Forum:

“Media standards regarding sensitive reporting are often the first victim of high-profile suicides. The Robin Williams case is a good example. Well-established reporting rules were abandoned. This highlighted the problem that media have in recognising the difference between what is in the public interest and what the public are interested in. These are not the same thing and it requires careful and humane journalism to make the distinction.

The suicide story requires journalists and media to apply the highest standards of ethical restraint, but often these are set aside in the commercial climate in which the media find themselves. The coverage of celebrity lives is a fascinating and lucrative centrepiece of news reporting. In a fiercely competitive market, many media do little to balance the principles of taste, privacy and humanity against the commercial advantages of detailed, intrusive and often explicit exposure of the lives of victims.”

With new, faster and more globalised forms of technology and media constantly in the offing, perhaps it is time for a refresher on the principles of reporting suicide responsibly and how those might be applied to social media, live webcasting and international reporting. Skehan offered these comments and advice on media coverage of suicide:

“The speed of news and the race to be ‘first’ with breaking news creates many challenges for reporting generally, and specifically when we are dealing with sensitive issues like suicide. The worst instances of reporting [on Robin Williams’ death] that appeared in Australia were related to television and radio stations taking a live feed from the US, giving the Australian audience unedited exposure to anything that was said, shown or revealed. It would be prudent, in cases such as suicide, to consider reviewing press conferences and live statements before they go to air to ensure the content is in line with the codes of practice.

Print editors should also be cautious and consider editing protocols for stories going straight from the international wire to online news sources. For example, some editors were unaware that stories detailing the method of suicide were appearing on their site. Journalists (and anyone) on social media also need to be aware of the very public nature of tweets and posts.”

The main challenges facing reporters are: the globalisation of news, which means that they may be picking up stories from journalists based in other countries where reporting regulations differ from those in place in the media organisation’s country; competition with citizen journalists and social media who can inform the public more quickly, providing details that journalists may choose to withhold; and liveblogging and live webcasting of press conferences, as was the case for the coroner’s report on Robin Williams’ death. This was controversial; in the United Kingdom, for example, such a webcast would not happen, but liveblogging still would, as was the case at the press conference given by the coroner in July following Peaches Geldof’s death. Another controversial move was ABC News’ decision to set up a camera providing live aerial footage of Williams’ home in the hours following the discovery of his body, which has been criticised as intrusive and insensitive.

It is not only journalists who may flout such rules; members of the public, police officers and public figures can all be similarly insensitive, and some media figures have since apologised for their reactions to the star’s death.

The general principles of most suicide reporting guidelines are that, when reporting a suicide, it is advisable not to put the story on the front page, not to describe the methods employed, to be sensitive, not to suggest the suicide had only one cause and not to use the word ‘suicide’ or describe the methods used, in the headline. The phrase ‘commit suicide’ is considered offensive to bereaved family members, as it may imply a crime or a sin.

Despite these guidelines being widely publicised in many countries, in the wake of a celebrity suicide, some papers simply could not resist breaking a few of them, forgetting the sensitivity described in the rush to grab a headline. This is best exemplified in the memo allegedly sent out by Cristina Everett of the New York Daily News, telling employees to employ ‘buzzy search words like *death, dead, suicide, etc.*’. That said, the general mood in the media towards Williams’ death, with a few notable exceptions, was one of sympathy.

Sal Lalji, Press & PR Manager of UK Samaritans, was generally optimistic about how the press have addressed the wider mental health issues surrounding the news of Williams’ suicide, despite some of her concerns about the unnecessary details published around the method. She commented that she has seen a real improvement on how the press approach suicide coverage in recent years, and also in the number of journalists approaching Samaritans for advice before writing a story or producing a television show. She acknowledges the pressures faced by journalists with a deadline to meet, but reminds them that Samaritans are only at the end of a phone line and are always happy to give advice about how to cover a suicide responsibly.

The coroner’s report on Williams’ death legally had to be released, which was a controversial move, with journalists and private individuals alike criticising it on social media, claiming that reproducing the details quote by painful quote was unnecessary.

‘genie now you’re free’ image tweeted by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences was shared by more than 330,000 Twitter users, in reference to the actor’s role as Aladdin. This has been widely criticised as sending a dangerous message, implying that suicide might be a form of liberation. By contrast, some news outlets have focused on Williams’ life, rather than his death, with artists sending in tributes at Vice, and E! Entertainment compiling a list of ‘Life Lessons Robin Williams Taught Us’.

Sal Lalji told the World Editors Forum:

“Mainstream news has a greater responsibility when reporting news than Twitter individuals, as they are trusted reporters with a bigger audience who are subject to certain regulations, whereas bloggers and social media users do not fall within the remit of these rules. Samaritans has recently published the 5th edition of our media guidelines and we are pleased to see that these are already being taken up, with members of the general public also tweeting links to our guidelines. This level of self-regulation has been encouraging to see. With new journalists coming into the industry every year and more experienced reporters needing a reminder from time to time, it is important that we constantly educate people on these issues.

“Media coverage in the UK has certainly improved since 2006’s addition of the clause about avoiding excessive detail to the regulations set out by the Press Complaints Commission. We recommend that journalists talking about suicide emphasise the tragic waste of life and discuss the wider issues, rather than trying to pin it to one thing. It is not our intention to drive conversation about suicide underground or to control what is said, but we do want to educate people on what’s risky in terms of encouraging vulnerable people to copycat.”

Although it can go wildly wrong, as noted by The Independent here, reporting on suicide, when done in a responsible way, can have a positive effect, prompting at-risk people to seek help. It is too soon to analyse helpline statistics following Williams’ death, but Lalji notes that after the broadcast of an episode of British soap Coronation Street, which featured an assisted suicide earlier this year, treated sensitively and produced in collaboration with Samaritans with the number announced at the end, the helpline saw a significant increase in people making use of their service to seek help. In the 12 hours following the show, there was a 33 percent increase in calls.

Skehan was equally optimistic about the potential of social media to be a platform for raising awareness about issues surrounding suicide and for helping vulnerable people:

“While potentially harmful information can spread quickly on social media, so can helpful information. The Mindframe team in Australia (backed up by organisations like Lifeline) has a social media strategy for managing high-profile suicide stories. We have seen tweets about preferred language, reminders about best-practice reporting, and help-seeking information shared internationally. Sometimes, the solution is to be a voice in the space, rather than only working on moderation of the space.”

A few sets of guidelines for reportage on suicide:

The Samaritans’ Media Guidelines

The World Health Organisation’s Advice

Suicide Prevention Resource Centre

Mindframe Australia

If you, or someone you know, are experiencing suicidal ideation and you are in the US, please call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255; operators are available 24/7. In the UK, the Samaritans can be contacted on 08457 90 90 90. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is on 13 11 14.

Title photo credit: By Eva Rinaldi from Sydney, Australia, via Wikimedia Commons

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