Reporting Mental Health and Suicide – The Do’s and Don’ts

There is much needed to be considered by reporters when it comes to producing content on mental illness and suicide in the media. It comes as a great responsibility to report in a way which steers clear from being inaccurate, insensitive or sensationalist (Sane Australia, 2018). These topics definitely need to be spoken about and should not be avoided, however the way in which they are spoken about is the big issue here.

A main concern is the common negative impression that someone living with a mental illness is “dangerous”, “deranged” or “threatening”, false ideologies fabricated through our mainstream media (O’Hara, 2011). An illness is defined as “a disease or period of sickness affecting the body or mind” (Oxford Dictionary), yet for some reason in the media a physical illness is represented in a much different way than a mental illness, and this can be very hurtful to those experiencing one or who know someone experiencing one.

It is also evident that through suicide research, certain types of media reporting may “trigger further suicidal behaviours among vulnerable people” (Kolves, 2012). When reporting suicide, language used to describe, context or lack of context, detail on method and location and the positioning of the story are all very important elements in producing context which is ethically and morally correct and will not harm the individual’s being affected by the suicide or the general public viewing the story. In a case from a Pennsylvania newspaper in 2016, an insensitive article revealing explicit detail of a suicide was written by The Sharon Herald and many prominent flaws can be seen in it including violations of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPG) Code of Ethics.

The principal points of concern with The Sharon Herald’s report of the suicide of Joseph Koscinski surround the unnecessary graphic details describing how the deceased body was found, how the incident occurred and the sensationalised description of the man’s pre-existed mental illness. By reading the original article (which can be found here) it is very prevalent that the SPJ Code of Ethics have been ignored. The codes which state that journalists should “balance the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort” and “show compassion for those who may be affected by news coverage” have not at all been taken in account for by the journalists who has composed this article and in response many people were angered, upset and disgusted by this, especially the victim’s family and friends. The pain felt by family and people left behind by suicide is tremendous, and it is important that there are heard. But this doesn’t necessarily mean details of suicides should be published (Kolves, 2012).

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By instead drawing focus on suicide prevention and providing help to those who may be affected by the article, something which The Sharon Herald lacked, an effective and respective way of reporting suicide can be achieved. The details of the case must be produced with heightened sensitivity as “risk of additional suicides increases when the story explicitly describes the suicide method, uses dramatic/graphic headlines or images, and repeated/extensive coverage sensationalises or glamorises a death” (Amy Kulp, 2016). Reporters must aim to instead describe what “that person was like when they were alive since you’re painting a picture that will remain online going forward” (Seaman,2016).

The Sharon Herald later made a statement by email to website iMediaEthics:

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Educating reporters with the ethical correct way of reporting mental health and suicide in the media can ultimately minimise harm and discomfort that may arise when reporting on such sensitive topics. Avoiding sensationalised reporting of suicide and refraining the use of inappropriate language in regards to mental health is essential in reporting in a respectful and ethical way. The Sharon Herald article definitely gives a great example of how NOT to report suicide and highlights why great care and responsibility must be considered by journalists.

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