Suicide Reporting: We need to teach it better

Authors: Luce, A. and Duncan, S.

Start date: 9 July 2019

Media reporting of suicide is an important but challenging area of journalism ethics, whether for journalists reporting it, academics teaching it, or students trying to understand it. Given that suicide accounts for 1.4% of all deaths worldwide, making it the 17th leading cause of death in 2015 (the most recent statistics available) (WHO, 2017), it is imperative that journalists learn how to report this sensitive traumatic issue in a responsible and ethical manner. Journalistic coverage traditionally focusses on negative perceptions and blame, stereotypes, method and location, glorification and deviance. Journalists’ societal responsibilities to explain and hold power to account in this regard are secondary to these, if indeed they are reported at all. Whilst journalists seem prepared to interview bereaved relatives after death by murder or road traffic accident (Duncan & Newton, 2017) they are reluctant to interview those bereaved by suicide, and when they do, the research indicates they do so in an insensitive and at times, unethical manner. Consequently, suicide reporting can appear uncaring and potentially harmful to those in the stories. Recent research conducted by the authors into journalism students’ perspectives on suicide indicates that academics teaching on journalism and communication degree programmes in the UK and Ireland may shy away from teaching this difficult subject for fear of causing harm to their students and increasing suicide ideation amongst them, taking the view that they have a duty of care to them. This anxiety may be linked to the erroneous notion that journalism may cause suicide (Luce, 2019). Whilst some suicide research suggests a correlation between media reporting and increased suicide ideation there is no substantive evidence that journalists’ coverage causes people to take their own lives (Cross, 2007; Hittner, 2005, Niederkrothenthaler et al, 2010, Shahtahmasebi, 2015, Luce, 2016; Luce, 2019). Correlation does not equal causality i.e. because events occur in near time does not mean that one causes the other (Cross, 2007: 20). There is a growing plea for the UK media to adopt better ways to report suicide. More than 130 UK public figures recently signed an open letter calling for a change in reporting tone, culture and use of outdated language and stereotypes (BBC, 10.9.2018; Guardian, 10.9.2018; Press Gazette, 10.9.2018). Therefore, it is timely that journalism educators review alternative means of teaching students about media reporting of suicide. This paper suggests journalism academics should concentrate on the storytelling, thus placing students – and educators – in the familiar ground of journalism practice. Duncan’s five narrative model of stories about grief that reflect different times in the lives of the bereaved (Duncan, 2012; Duncan & Newton, 2017) offers a viable tool for teaching students about how journalists report suicide. The five narrative model classifies these stories into the categories of event-driven, tribute-driven, post-judicial process, anniversary of the death and action-as-memorial. This paper will develop in greater detail the earlier application of this model by Luce to suicide reporting along with her four simple rules of responsible reporting (Luce, 2016; Luce 2019). To reinforce this application a sample of 100 suicide news stories have been analysed and categorised using Duncan’s five narrative model as well as being tested for the presence of Luce’s rules in order to establish a robust model for suicide reporting that can be used in the classroom. Additionally, this paper draws on concepts of storytelling-as-a-pedagogy as a theoretical framework in which to situate the research and to increase understanding of suicide reporting both by students and by journalism educators. Conle (2003) notes that the use of narrative as curricula “encompasses not only what is explicitly learned but also what is learned practically, at a more tacit level, touching not only on the intellect, but the moral, practical, imaginative realm”. The aim is that through the process of producing stories, students will have a more interactive and memorable experience of suicide reporting, which will lead them to consider and implement key recommendations from reporting guidelines in an applied manner i.e. through their storytelling. It also seeks to encourage them to reflect on the process, rules and consequences of their active reporting, thus opening the topic up for experiential discussion in class. It aspires to enable them to participate in another aspect of storytelling-as-a-pedagogy: “an opportunity to tell, deconstruct and learn from their own personal stories” (Coulter et al, 2007). Whilst storytelling within journalism practice differs from storytelling as an educational strategy, they share “a basic and powerful form in which we make sense of the world and experience” and are the “means by which social change is enacted” (Egan, 1988; Tate, 1997). The paper also proposes to acknowledge potential ethical challenges in this story-based approach such as harm to vulnerable students, tensions around interacting with those bereaved by suicide, and clarifying journalistic responsibility.

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