News Theory Questions 2

When should suicides be covered?

There are many studies that show certain news coverage of suicides will increase the chances that a vulnerable person who reads it will also attempt to kill themselves. The extent of this influence is dependent on the prominence of the coverage and the content. The general coverage of suicides tends to be about those which are of interest. This could be when lots of suicides happen in a particular area or around the same time, new studies about suicide, or those people in the limelight or who have jobs of importance who kill themselves. These suicide stories would be covered because they are considered to be in the public interest.

There has to be some attention around the suicide for it to be reported. Journalists only learn of an act of suicide when a public person commits the act or when the act itself takes place in a public place and as a result attracts police attention (Jamieson et al. 2003). If there is a disruption to public life because the act took place in public then naturally this would draw attention. It would then draw the attention of an institution or the police who would then pass on the information to news organisations.

Suicides are always covered in detail when they involve celebrities. Media reporting of suicide, particularly that of a celebrity may lead to a spurt of copycat suicides also known as the Werther effect (De Souza et al. 2016). It could be argued that suicides like this should not be covered at all or only in a basic manner to prevent the series of suicides that follow. Alternatively, you could argue that if reported correctly, you can help those audience members who are suffering by providing ways of helping which would then reduce suicide rates.

De Sousa, A., Harshe, D., Karia, S., Harshe, S., Shah, N. and Harshe, G., 2016. Celebrity suicide and its effect on further media reporting and portrayal of suicide: An exploratory study. Indian Journal of Psychiatry, 58 (4), 443.

Jamieson, P., Jamieson, K. H. and Romer, D., 2003. The responsible reporting of suicide in print journalism. American Behavioral Scientist, 46 (12), 1643–1660.


When we decide to write about suicide, how should we do so?

To avoid causing ‘copycat suicides’ there are ways in which we should report when covering suicides. The most important rule is never to describe the method that was used. This is the detail that vulnerable people might be looking for or may inspire them with a way to end their life. Graphic or dramatic headlines and images are also features that should be avoided as it draws attention to the story. If a suicide story is repeated over and over again or there is a large amount of coverage, it risks sensationalising the death which again increases the risk of additional suicides.

Use of language is also something that needs to be considered. Using words such as “epidemic” to describe facts and figures about suicide creates a sense of panic and raises awareness of the suicide topic rather than using more basic words like “rise in suicide rates.” Using words such as “successful” or “unsuccessful” subtly implies that you have failed if you didn’t manage to kill yourself which makes suicide seem like a good thing. When writing about suicide it would be better to describe it as “died by suicide” or “killed himself/herself” instead. Suicide should never be romanticised or give the reader the impression that it is a solution to life’s problems (Jamieson et al. 2003).

Suicide is almost always linked to mental illness which is why it’s important to highlight the warning signs rather than describing the act as unexplainable even if that’s what the family have told you. Most people who commit suicide will have given off some kind of warning sign. It needs to be reported as a health issue rather than simply a bad act or crime that took place. This way it is more likely that others who are vulnerable can be helped. Experts have argued that mindful reporting of both suicide and mental illness can have a positive impact on those who are suffering (Skehan et al. 2009).

Providing links to phone help lines or websites is also a good way to help potentially vulnerable readers when writing about suicide.

Jamieson, P., Jamieson, K. H. and Romer, D., 2003. The responsible reporting of suicide in print journalism. American Behavioral Scientist, 46 (12), 1643–1660.

Skehan, J., Burns, L. S. and Hazell, T., 2009. The response ability project: Integrating the reporting of suicide and mental illness into journalism curricula. Journalism & Mass Communication Educator, 64 (2), 191–204.


Is it our job simply to reflect reality, or do we have a responsibility to protect our readers and viewers from disturbing images? 

This issue debates whether it is best to show your readers as little disturbing material as possible or to show them exactly how brutal the situation is and risk upsetting readers. Editors are often faced with this dilemma and have been described as “gatekeepers” as they control what should be presented to audiences and what shouldn’t (White 1950). If you chose not to show them the images then you are assuming that the readers can understand the severity of the situation without seeing graphic details. Some people would say that showing pictures of dead, bloodied bodies is going too far when describing a war zone and is just being done to shock people and gain more readers/viewers. There is also the concern of young people/children seeing these upsetting images at an age where they cannot comprehend the situation.

In the Newspaper research Journal, a study was carried out to test how newspapers decided to run disturbing images from 9/11. It showed that many editors agreed readers shouldn’t be shielded from the truth and they chose to publish those images because they were so disturbing (Kratzer and Kratzer 2003). Others would agree and say it is better to show the truth of an awful event rather than making it seem less harmful or dangerous. This risks people not reacting with enough passion and ignoring a situation destroying lives or places. Only by showing the real pain and suffering being experienced can people be inspired to help those in need. A situation like this happened with the refugee crisis when the body of Alan Kurdi who washed up dead on a beach was photographed and displayed on every newspaper, shown in every newsroom and shared all over the internet. This graphic image was shocking but that was the intention, it made people sit up and take notice of what was happening and why these people were fleeing.

A way of reporting that is a middle point between these two opposites is for pictures taken from a distance to be used or for a warning slate to be placed in front of the image/video. This way people can choose to see the image or can understand the situation without having a close-up gruesome picture presented to them without warning.

Kratzer, R. M. and Kratzer, B., 2003. How Newspapers Decided to Run Disturbing 9/11 Photos. Newspaper Research Journal, 24 (1), 8.

White, D., 1950. The gatekeeper: A case study in the selection of news. Journalism Quarterly, 27 (4).




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