Media reports on the teenager who jumped to her death should not engage in wild speculation about the circumstances that led to the death. Photo: Sam Tsang

The tragedy of suicide: good journalism can help

Paul Yip says simplistic, insensitive coverage affects the vulnerable

The recent apparent suicide of a teenage girl who didn't have a birth certificate occupied the front pages of many major local newspapers. Some of the coverage explored the complex issues around the case but much of it was insensitive and lurid. Sharing personal Facebook posts and speculating as to how they might explain suicidal actions, as one newspaper did, is not helpful. It encourages an oversimplified interpretation of events, and also shows a lack of consideration for distress caused to the victim's family and friends.

The episode shows that more needs to be done to encourage responsible journalism.

Much research has been done around the world which shows how media reporting on suicide can affect the behaviour of vulnerable individuals. Our own research reveals that insensitive reporting can contribute to an increase in suicides. Young people, who are prone to peer influence, are especially likely to be affected by public accounts of suicide, particularly if they have similar backgrounds.

To address this, some countries and regions have passed laws to protect children and adolescents' rights. For instance, Taiwan prohibits its press from reporting details of a child's or adolescent's suicide. Reporting on youth suicides is also rare in the West.

Besides legal regulations, the World Health Organisation and the International Association for Suicide Prevention have published guidelines for media reporting suicide, and similar guidelines have also been adopted in many countries. Our centre also introduced such guidelines to Hong Kong in 2004 and kept engaging local media professionals to report suicide news more responsibly.

The recommendations include not publishing photographs or suicide notes, not reporting specific details of the death, not giving simplistic reasons for suicide, not glorifying or sensationalising it, not using religious or cultural stereotypes, and not apportioning blame.

The aim of the guidelines is not to censor, but to inform the media of the impact of their work. We fully respect editorial freedom; however, showing social responsibility is also well accepted as a basic principle of journalism ethics.

Most journalists would protect the vulnerable. Our recent experience in working with the media on the spread of an emerging suicide method is encouraging and they are willing to tone down reporting to help prevent the copycat effect.

Good journalism recognises that the factors that lead to suicide are complex. It also does its best to highlight alternatives to suicide, provide information on helplines and community resources, raise the public's awareness with risk indicators and warning signs, and encourage timely support to those at risk.

Every suicide is tragic, with far-reaching consequences on a local level, as well as public health implications for society at large. Those bereaved by suicide need support and compassion, and vulnerable young adults need to feel like they can come forward to disclose their issues and access support.

We cannot achieve the goal of preventing suicide without support from the media. Two years ago, we organised a focus group with local media professionals on suicide news reporting. One of the participants told us that she had never thought about reporting suicide news until she came to work in Hong Kong. She had been a reporter in Canada and the common practice there is to put down the pen when hearing of a suicide - reporters there think it is the media's responsibility to avoid reporting topics that can lead to copycat deaths.

We are not asking journalists here to drop their pen or keyboard, but to use them to promote solutions. We all can do our fair share to prevent suicide.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Responsible media can help prevent tragedy of suicide