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How suicides are reported in Hong Kong media could have a significant impact on the rate of the deaths, according to an expert at the University of Hong Kong.
“Reporting on suicide should be based on fact not imagination. The mass media have a habit of filling in many of the ‘unknowns’ in suicide stories themselves,” said Fu King-wa, an assistant professor at the HKU Journalism & Media Studies Centre.
Fu pointed to a case in September in which a 50-year-old woman committed suicide by inhaling helium. A prominent Hong Kong tabloid newspaper covered the story extensively and included a vivid video animation outlining the steps she carried out.
“It’s almost as if they are giving a ‘how-to’ rehearsal,” Fu added.
A 2011 research paper by Fu, his colleagues Chan Yuen-ying and Paul Yip Siu-fai on suicide reports in the newspaper and their compliance with World Health Organisation media guidelines found non-compliant suicide stories prevalent in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Guangzhou.
The study found that only 4 per cent of suicide articles in Hong Kong provided preventative advice such as a helpline or referral service to a suicide prevention organisation, much lower than 14 per cent for Guangzhou and 13 per cent for Taiwan.
The frequency of front-page suicide articles was found to be highest in Hong Kong newspapers (see graphic below).
About 40 per cent of the 1,086 Chinese-language Hong Kong newspaper suicide articles retrieved for the research carried fewer than 200 Chinese characters even though 90 per cent of suicide articles had graphic pictorial presentations. The figure was the highest out of the three markets.
Some demographic biases were also evident in suicide reporting. The report found that newspaper articles in all three regions tended to underplay adult suicides, aged 60 and over, but overemphasise suicide amongst those under 25.
"Such media misrepresentation may mislead the public and the policy makers about the actual risk for suicide of these groups," the report said.
Tracy Dedman, of The Samaritans suicide prevention service, said the media play a crucial role in shaping suicide perception in Hong Kong and could create false realities by sensationalising stories.
“The media should be very careful in forming causal relationships between suicides and specific causes,” said Dedman. "Rarely is suicide committed just because of one particular reason."
Dedman stresses it would be irresponsible and almost dangerous for journalists to report a suicide and attribute it simply to single specific causes such as unemployment or stress, without explaining other underlying issues.
Another problem was the overuse of inappropriate terms such as "successful" and "unsuccessful" suicide as opposed to “completed" or "attempted" suicide when covering suicide rates. Hong Kong newspapers have been known to give disproportionate coverage to attempted suicides.
She also points to the need for more stories to provide preventative advice or hotline numbers in articles about suicide.
The Samaritans has also published its own media guidelines for suicide reporting.