Suicide coverage must avoid sensationalism

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 13 January, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 13 January, 1993, 12:00am

I WRITE to reiterate the point made by Christopher Bagley (South China Morning Post, January 7) that, ''prominent reporting of suicide in the media has a measurable impact in increasing the suicide rate amongst vulnerable groups''.

Ample research has shown that children and adolescents following exposure to media stories about suicide, whether real or fictional, would be more likely to imitate the suicidal behaviour.

To counter this phenomenon, reporters and editors have to be educated about the dangers of sensational journalism and romanicised coverage.

To curtail the ''imitation effect'', the Hongkong media must exercise necessary precautions as regards suicide.

Reporters and other personnel in the mass media, must bear in mind the following dos and don'ts to avoid encouraging ''copycat'' suicides: Avoid detailed depictions of methods of suicide, which may give young people ideas.

Avoid using simplistic, over-generalisations, such as ''academic pressure'', and ''family problems''.

Avoid referring to the rewards associated with suicide such as ''revenge''.

Avoid highlighting the good qualities of the people who killed themselves, such as, they were attractive or hard-working, as this may make them into role models for those contemplating suicide.

Avoid repeated, particularly sensational, media coverage of teenage suicide.

Describe the mental health problems of those who killed themselves, not just the stress.

Though most people who committed suicide have chronic mental health problems, news reports generally have minimal presentation of such issues.

Hotline numbers should accompany newspaper articles and television coverage of suicide stories. This was done, with some success, after the Lan Kwai Fong incident.

Try to minimise the consequences of a suicide attempt (for example, paralysis, ''the teacher was filled with remorse'').

In order to curtail the problem of teenage suicide in Hongkong, there is not only a need to exercise restraint in the media, but also to maintain an on-going dialogue between mental health professionals and media representatives.

Let me conclude by saying, I prefer to use the phrase ''people who kill themselves'' rather than ''the victims''. A victim is one who is suffering pain or loss.

It better describes the family members rather than the person who commits suicide.

John W. L. TSE Senior Lecturer Department of Applied Social Studies City Polytechnic of Hongkong