News interview: Responsible reporting of suicide can save lives

Our journalist Ella Rhodes talks to Professor Rory O'Connor

In the wake of comedian and actor Robin Williams’ death, which attracted media coverage across the world, many questions were raised about the reporting of his suicide. Print and broadcast journalists have access to guidelines which recommend that they do not reveal too much detail about the method used in any suicide, oversimplify the causes, overly focus on celebrity suicide, or provide sensationalist coverage.Organisations (including Samaritans) have developed these guidelines for journalists reporting suicides, and rules also exist in the Press Complaints Commission Editors’ Code of Practice and Ofcom’s Code of Practice. However, there was widespread criticism that some newspapers revealed too many details about the method that Williams used to take his own life. There was also consternation over a tweet sent out by The Academy which some commentators felt could glorify the act or suggest to others that suicide is a means to end suffering.
Professor Rory O’Connor (University of Glasgow), president of the International Academy for Suicide Research and director of the Suicidal Behaviour Research Laboratory in Glasgow, said there was clear evidence that some media reporting of suicide can have an impact on vulnerable people – making them more likely to attempt suicide. He told The Psychologist: ‘We know talking about suicide doesn’t plant the idea in people’s heads, the issue is that if someone is already thinking of suicide, the reporting of suicide may increase the likelihood that they’ll attempt suicide. Although we need to better understand precisely how media reporting increases the risk of suicide, there is clear evidence that sensationalist, explicit reporting of suicide is especially risky.’
When asked why the media should keep details of the method of suicide scant, he said: ‘Vulnerable people often show cognitive constriction (tunnel thinking), so even if they have had thoughts of suicide, they may not have formed a detailed plan of how they would translate their suicidal thoughts into action. Our concern is that detailed descriptions of methods of suicide may facilitate this transition. Robin Williams’ death was very badly handled; in too many instances the media reporting guidelines were ignored completely, which was irresponsible. It is important to remember that the responsible reporting of suicide can save lives. Talking in detail about the method may prime its use, making it more salient to people who are already vulnerable.’
But what can psychologists do to make the media more aware of the dangers of insensitive reports of suicides? Professor O’Connor said: ‘A few months ago, I took part in a fruitful meeting, organised by Samaritans, with journalists in Scotland. We discussed the concerns about the reporting of suicide and the implementation of the guidelines. It was a really helpful discussion – and psychologists should have a role in such discussions. In addition, we should be conducting more research into how the media reporting affects vulnerable people. We can also have a positive impact by improving how the media guidelines are communicated, disseminated and implemented. Part of the challenge is that we don’t want to censor the media, it’s very important that suicide is reported to minimise the stigma around discussing it; it’s about promoting safe and responsible reporting. Psychologists, among others, also have an important role in destigmatising mental health.’  
The media has also been criticised for presenting Williams as something of a ‘sad clown’ character in reports of his death. Professor O’Connor said: ‘I don’t find such descriptions as helpful. Suicide can, and does, affect anyone so it’s not helpful to caricature individuals into these sub-types. Although I can see why the media were describing him as such as there is evidence that there’s a link between suicide risk and creativity, my message is that people who die by suicide come from all walks of life.’
- To contact Samaritans, call 08457 90 90 90 (from the UK) or see their contact details.

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