Hong Kong media must play part to help break the chain of suicides
Journalists can play a critical role by exercising sensitivity in reporting, but the efforts of everyone in the community are needed to support young people
The recent cluster of suicides among students is sad and has rightly been met with much concern in the community. There have been calls for immediate action and hopes of a silver bullet to solve the problem.
However, the fact is there is no single cause of suicide and it is always a result of multiple factors interacting with one another. Trying to identify a method to solve the problem is unrealistic and sometimes even unhelpful.
Singling out school work pressure as the cause may be misleading and could result in us failing to build resilience among our children. Students will always face study pressure and uncertainty over their future. The lack of social support for them, depression and the resilence of students also need to be addressed. Some are from single-parent families or have suffered from behavioural problems that could make them less willing to seek help when needed.
Another important concern is the impact of traditional media as well as social media on children. In Australia, media outlets are extremely careful in reporting news of suicides. It is common understanding and a professional ethic among media professionals not to report suicide news. They are taught the practice in their journalistic training.
Our research shows that less than one per cent of suicide cases are reported in Australia whereas nearly 30 per cent are reported in Hong Kong. The matter overrides press freedom since there is a genuine concern about the so-called copycat effect among vulnerable people who may be exposed to such news. Although there is no legal regulation on reporting suicides, the “do no harm” principle of the media is professionally adhered to.
Journalists in Western countries are often older and more experienced. They are given more time to prepare their stories and salaries are better. Journalism is a profession not only requiring skills but also high ethical standards. How journalism is being conducted and how professional journalists are treated can be an acid test of the maturity of a society and its democratic development.
To prevent suicides among any segment of the population, it is important to break the chain and stop them spreading. Numerous pieces of research have established a causative link between the incidence of suicide and the amount of news reporting on the subject. It is therefore encouraging to see recent changes in covering suicides among local media professionals that have led to more responsible reporting and less sensationalising of the news.
On social media, users are also realising the importance of being careful when sharing information about suicide. When we send, post and repost news to an online group, let’s all be more careful and mindful that some negative news could be overwhelming for vulnerable people.
Placing blame is easy, but identifying the causes of suicide is difficult and providing workable solutions even harder. Everybody in the community must work together to help our young people meet the myriad challenges of life.
Paul Yip is director of the Centre for Suicide Research and Prevention at the University of Hong Kong