The media reported on the suicide of a principal from Maribor. Normally, news of such an event would reach the local community and personally affect his loved ones. However, the death was exposed to the media in recent weeks, and its coverage has spread to a much wider audience.
Media coverage on suicide
Media attention in the form of sensational reporting (including the method, place, and time), speculations of the causes and triggers, and displaying suicide as a solution to a problem not only affects the bereavement process of people close to the deceased, but may also have an impact on the wider public.
When somebody completes suicide and there is widespread and repetitive media coverage of it, it can result in an imitation effect, called the Werther effect.
After the death of a person is exposed to the media the number of suicides often increases. The risk of suicide is especially increased among people in need, young people, or those who identify with the story or manner of death.
In these situations, the most responsible action the media can take is to avoid such announcements. In this case, some of the media followed this recommendation.
Guidelines on responsible reporting
We wish that the number of suicides doesn’t increase due to the media reporting on the recent death. We also believe that most journalists wish to inform the public about the event in a responsible manner. Therefore, they are requested not to forget about responsible reporting practices, as there is no need to cause even more damage.
For this purpose, we prepared guidelines on responsible media reporting on suicide, and have also collected common myths about suicidal behaviour.
Suicide should only be reported when it is in the public interest. It is questionable if this was the case in this recent matter.
If articles are to be published, we wish that journalists and editors would include helpline numbers and that the word suicide would not be used in headlines. It is also important to inform the public about the complexity of the phenomenon, about the risk factors for suicide (e.g. depression, feelings of loneliness, alcohol abuse, physical illness), and about the fact that a person in such distress can be helped and suicide can be prevented.
A brief analysis of the first articles
Media coverage can be assessed quickly after the first day, but without a thorough and systematic analysis.
It makes the most sense for the media to not bring so much attention to these cases and it is their responsibility to not use it to increase viewership or readership. The best case scenario is if this information would not even be reported in the first place. After consideration of their responsibilities, some of the media have adopted this practice.
The main problem with the recent media coverage was the disclosure of the identity of the deceased. Some articles even mention the name and surname of the person, but according to the context of the story the reference “the principal from Maribor” is sufficient in identifying the person. In identifying the deceased, relatively little consideration was given to the sensitivity of reporting and the care of those close to the deceased.
It is problematic that most of the articles (according to the first review, over 80%) mention the word suicide in the headlines. Some media changed the word (e.g. into death) after our warning.
It may seem like a small change but past studies have shown that the number of suicides increases immediately after the publication of headlines with the word suicide in them. This makes suicide seem common place and is seen as a common way of solving problems.
Unfortunately, the media didn’t take the opportunity to sufficiently inform the public about the complexity of suicidal behaviour. In this case the personal, family, and social risk factors could have been identified from the story.
Many of the articles were short and did not allow commenting, which is positive. It was also positive that the articles didn’t report the details of the suicide. However, it would be worthwhile to add information about where to seek help in case of distress. Only one publication included contact information of such organizations. It would also be interesting to prepare articles with stories for the general public, in which people in similar distress found a constructive way of solving their problems. In this way we can strengthen public mental health.
What we can do
Suicide prevention is a task for everyone
We certainly don’t want this event and its large media exposure to increase the number of suicides, but the risk still exists. Many people identified with the story in some way and they can imagine how some mistakes they have made could complicate their situation into such a miserable state.
We therefore call upon the media and the people to be even more attentive and sensitive to others and their distress in this time.
There is nothing wrong with asking someone if they are in distress or if they are thinking about suicide. This will not make the situation any worse, but could encourage an honest conversation and provide relief to that person.
Let this unfortunate event be an opportunity to be more caring to one another and ourselves by giving each other an opportunity for a deep conversation and to express our sincere concern. Suicide is a social problem and everyone can contribute to its prevention.
Reflecting the values in the media and in society
The media helps to shape our perception of the world, society, and ourselves by communicating what is desirable and good. Would it be worthwhile to consider what kind of messages shape our daily lives?
On one side, the media should consider which values they promote in society – perhaps it is possible to switch from reporting on disputes and scandals to the values of connectedness, growth, and overcoming difficult situations …
I believe there are many positive stories in Slovenia about which there is little written. For example, the media could report on how students from a secondary school in Maribor are currently abroad on a student exchange, in which they will broaden their horizons and learn skills for life. Isn’t such a story about these sixteen-year-olds worth greater attention?
In this case, blaming the media united the public and provided some form of relief, but the media are not the only culprits. Consideration must be taken by all of us. Viewers must decide on their own if such stories will be read, heard, or watched.
Each of us has the possibility to turn off the TV when they report on such sensationalised news or not read articles with shallow, insensitive titles, but rather to focus on positive news instead.
This is a small change that may alter the reporting methods used by journalists and editors and break the vicious cycle of altering viewer perceptions and the media coverage focused on the negative. For such change to occur we need maturity from all of us.
For more information on reporting suicide in the media and on suicide prevention, we are available through the following contact information.
On behalf of the Slovene Centre for Suicide Research (UP IAM)
|If you feel severe mental distress or you have suicidal thoughts, find professional help in organizations that can provide direct assistance to you. Your general practitioner can be the person to turn to.|