One of the first things I do in the morning is check the front pages of the daily papers and on the day following Robin Williams’ death, rarely have I been so disappointed in the British press.
Over the years, we have gathered a lot of evidence from reliable studies that show that how suicide is reported in the mass media affects the chances of suicide in the population – likely due to its effect on vulnerable people.
In other words, sensationalist and simplistic coverage of suicides, particularly celebrity suicides, regularly leads to more deaths.
It seems counter-intuitive to many, that a media description of suicide could actually increase the risk for suicide, but it is a genuine risk and people die through what is sometimes called suicide contagion or copycat suicide.
For this reason, organisations from the Samaritans, to the Centre for Disease Control, to an international panel of media organisations, have created explicit suicide reporting guidelines to ensure that no one dies or is harmed unnecessarily because of how suicide is reported.
The guidelines include sensible advice like not focusing on the methods people use to harm themselves, not oversimplifying the causes, not overly focusing on celebrity suicide, avoiding sensationalist coverage and not presenting suicide as a tool for accomplishing certain ends.
This advice keeps people safe. Today’s coverage does exactly the opposite, and many of the worst examples of dangerous reporting have been put directly on the front pages.
It is entirely possible to report on suicide and self-harm in a way that informs us, communicates the tragedy of the situation, and leaves us better off as a result of making these events more comprehensible.
This is not about freedom of the press. The press can report on what they want, how they want. There are no laws against bad reporting and neither would I want there to be but you do have a personal and professional responsibility to ensure that you are not putting people at risk by your need to sell copy.
You also have to look yourself in the mirror every morning, and by the front pages of many of today’s daily papers, I’m sure there are more than a few editors who had to divert their gaze while standing, momentarily shamed, in front of their own reflections.