IPSO – Reporting on Suicide: Guidance for journalists and editors   1 November 2023 (here)

Open justice must be a crucial principle in any fair and ethical society.   Fair, accurate and contemporaneous media reporting of court proceedings is to be encouraged, and media reporting of matters stated in open court should only be curtailed when strictly necessary. As the earlier IPSO guidance on reporting deaths and inquest (here) recognises, news organisations play an important role in reporting deaths and accidents. But even when done sensitively, this often causes great distress to the families of those involved.

This new guidance, published today from the Independent Press Standards Organisation (press release here), specifically addressing the reporting of death by suicide is to be welcomed as a first step to reducing the risk of damage by such reporting.  As the leading cause of death in people under the age of 35 in the UK the issue of suicide is rightly of interest to the public and press.[1]   However research from around the world shows that media portrayals of suicide, including information published by newspapers and magazines, can influence suicidal behaviour and lead to imitative acts, particularly among vulnerable groups or young people. The research described in the IPSO guidance shows that overly detailed reporting does not just influence the choice of method of a suicide but can lead to additional deaths which would otherwise not have occurred.

The IPSO guidance directed at journalists and editors provides advice on restricting the reporting of unnecessary details of suicide methods (particularly new and emerging methods), and reminds jounrlsists of the importance of reporting inquests accurately and sensitively.

Supplemented by the invaluable advice and skills teaching for journalists to be found in ‘The Suicide Reporting Toolkit’ (here), this new IPSO guidance should assist journalists to ‘make ethical decisions about their storytelling whilst under pressure from various news processes’.  The guidance importantly notes how the media should take particular care when reporting on novel methods, to prevent attention being drawn to a relatively unusual method of suicide.

In essence the overall message to journalists boils down to five key points:

      • Don’t sensationalise
      • Don’t stigmatise
      • Don’t glorify
      • Don’t report gratuitous detail
      • Don’t intrude on the bereaved

 

Information leaflet for the bereaved

A new public information leaflet (here) has also been produced by IPSO to inform people affected by suicide and its reporting (particularly bereaved families) of the process they can expect journalists to follow if they should talk to a bereaved person. By setting out what might happen during such an interview, and what can follow when the media publish a story about someone’s death by suicide, this leaflet can help the bereaved decide whether or not they want to speak to the press.

Those of us who work in and around coroners courts will know that a question the bereaved will often ask is ‘will there be journalists watching?’ and ‘what will the papers say?’.   Pointing the bereaved towards this leaflet might help give them some understanding of what might happen and of the extent and  imits of acceptable journalism.

 

Please will you stop saying ‘committed suicide’ 

The IPSO guidance helpfully points out to journalists that over sixty years ago the Suicide Act 1961 decriminalised the act of suicide.  Yet the use of the phrase “commit suicide” suffused as it is with the historical view of suicide as a criminal act, continues. Such terminology is seen by many to stigmatise suicide and is also insensitive to those affected by suicide.    It is such a shame that this guidance pulls its punches on the issue and only suggest that journalists should be ‘aware’ of this.

It would clearly never be appropriate to use the phrase ‘committed suicide’ on the Record Of Inquest, or indeed at any stage at all in the course of a coronial investigation or inquest, it can only be hoped that this is a phrase that will soon no longer be promulgated by the press.

 

 

Footnotes 

See government death statistics broken down by age here.