TO be blunt, this is another post where there is no solution offered or any perfect advice dispensed. I’m sorry for that, but I don’t think I’m alone in not being sure-footed on the best approach to take. It’s more that when you read the news articles about Tallulah Wilson, the Hampstead teenager who died last week, it was hard not to think that we are all still searching for the right way to confidently present stories about suicide.
There is sound advice on the Samaritans website, but even using the word suicide, certainly in headlines, is a point of unresolved debate among some professors. Certainly, as we stumble around looking for the best way to handle the subject, there is a fear among health professionals, academics and suicide prevention charities that we, collectively as journalists, could be adding to the harm. The studies into whether there is a link between media coverage and copycat suicides often make frightening reading.
There are several international examples of the ‘contagion’ theory, although people in this country often think back to Bridgend where several young people died around 2007 to 2008. Parliamentary evidence heard afterwards was critical of the press for failing to really think more thoughtfully about how they presented the story. One of the signs that the newspapers had lost some perspective was in the list of complaints from the suicide prevention charity PAPYRUS, which told a Select Committee:
‘Where cases of attractive young girls were reported, the size of the published photographs was substantially increased’
Several years ago now, Camden Council, shocked by the discovery it had the highest suicide rate in the country, organised its own evidence-taking study. It recommended that a media protocol should be set up with papers like the New Journal and the Ham and High. Newspapers naturally hate the idea of any regulation or outside control and the idea, as far I can remember, did not get off the ground. I thought about how this might have been a missed opportunity when, a few years later, there seemed at least two deaths at the same tower block in Swiss Cottage within a short spell.
On some occasions I’m guessing all newspapers look back and think how they could have used words more sensitively, at the time or in reporting inquests, but since then I can think of maybe one case that has been on the front page of our newspaper. The justification, if that’s the right word, from our point of view then was that the back story generated searching questions too serious to downplay. The woman involved had a long grievance from the way a police sniper had shot her son in a hostage situation and there was a need to investigate the lack of support she had received after that personal tragedy.
But, presumably, this would have run against the World Health Organisation’s advice that suicide should not be covered on the front pages of newspapers. It has warned previously:
Prominent placement and undue repetition of stories about suicide are more likely to lead to imitative behaviour than more subtle presentations. Newspaper stories about suicide should ideally be located on the inside pages, towards the bottom of the page, rather than on the front page or at the top of an inside page… Headlines are designed to attract the reader’s attention by giving the essence of the story in as few words as possible. Use of the word ‘suicide’ in the headline should be avoided as should be explicit reference to the method or site of the suicide.
Yet, if we are honest, this does not fit naturally into the way any newsroom works. You can have the most careful intentions but it would be hard to think of a way the death of David Kelly would not be a front page story. How could his death have been hidden away on a left hand page at that back of the book?
Similarly, last week, Tallulah, just 15. Her striking picture was in several nationals and on the front page of the Evening Standard. The word suicide was used in some of the headlines, but the articles were also campaigning and exploring potential dangers of websites that glamourise suicide. It’s a tough one to call. The New Journal needs also to work out how best to cover the case. Some might argue it shouldn’t be reported at all, others will say ignoring it only heightens the dangers teenagers are exposed to online. Another part of the media guidelines is often that tributes should not be dwelt on and should be downplayed in the press, but how hard is it to not want to publish a piece showing how much somebody like Tallulah was loved.
Maybe this post breaks the guidance too.
Yet, while newspapers do that stumbling around looking for the right formula, the right thing to do, half listening to the suicide prevention studies, others are putting the drama into suicide in front of our eyes. You could argue, for example, that the Met could choose its words more carefully when tweeting to thousands of Londoners from its helicopter in the sky. If newspapers shouldn’t use the word suicide in a headline, should the police use similar language in an update tweet…
0645hrs – Off to Camden / Regents Park area looking for a suicidal female.
— MPS Helicopter (@MPSinthesky) October 10, 2012
But when I think of all the things we have been told by the council’s inquiry, the World Health Organisation, the Samaritans about keeping it off the front page and at all costs taking the drama out of it, the biggest wince in this regard came not from a newspaper, but at a soap magazine poking out of the newsrack earlier this year. It may not have sparked the contangion theory – thankfully that is a rare effect – but a headline like ‘Suicide Drama’ surely fails us all on the grounds of taste alone. If Camden’s scrutiny inquiry all those years ago learned anything, it is that there is no great soap opera or stageshow in suicide.