Opinion: South African media fail to cover suicide responsibly

South African news agencies do not make responsible reporting their priority, especially, when it comes to suicide.

Let me elaborate.

On Saturday, 9 September, a news agency reported on the suicide of a 9-year-old boy. For the most part, the journalist simply did their job; there was an incident, the journalist chose and angle and, in what can be considered the perfect inverted pyramid format, provided the details of the incident.

But, in the very first paragraph of the article the journalist described, not only that there had been a suicide, but where it had taken place (even naming the school and giving the exact location on the school grounds) as well as how the suicide took place.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

According to Reporting on Suicide – one of the many websites that offer tips to media practitioners on how to report on suicide – “[m]ore than 50 research studies worldwide have found that certain types of news coverage can increase the likelihood of suicide in vulnerable individuals”.

Reporting on Suicide also says that the increase is linked to a number of factors including the prominence, duration and amount of coverage.

Amongst the do’s and dont’s on the website is a tip that advises journalists to avoid revealing details about how the suicide took place, because it can increase the risk of additional suicides through copycat suicide.

Looking again at the article about the 9-year-old boy,  the fact is this. Had any other person been in a vulnerable emotional state and considering suicide, they could have, based on the details of the article, been able to imitate the way in which the child killed himself.

In another article, by the same news agency a month earlier, the headline read: “Teen commits suicide over failure to obtain ID, birth certificate.” Now,  in this headline, the journalist pinned the cause of suicide to a single incident and used the issues surrounding the suicide to sensationalise it.

Samaritans, an organisation based in the UK committed to suicide prevention, advises the media to avoid oversimplifying the causes of suicide. According to the organisation “approximately 90 per cent of people who die by suicide have a diagnosed or undiagnosed mental health problem at the time of death.” In other words, by describing the lack of ID documents as the sole reason for the suicide, the journalist is misrepresenting the complexity of suicide and mental illness.

The article also went on to quote the entire content of the suicide note despite the fact that many suicide prevention organisations advise against it.

I could go on and on about how SA’s media fails to cover suicide responsibly, but it is more important to ask why we are not covering suicide with the correct amount of sensitivity.

I believe there are three main reasons.

Firstly, it is because there is still a stigma, albeit subconscious in some instances, attached to the issues of mental illness in South Africa. These subconscious perceptions are creeping into the way we speak and evidently report on suicide.

Secondly, aspiring journalists in South Africa are not given the correct or not enough training on how to report on issues of mental illness and suicide.

The last reason, and perhaps the most cynical, is the fact that news agencies focus too much on breaking news. They focus on getting clicks and shares and making money, and not enough on how their reporting is affecting their audience.

While journalists cannot be expected to fix these underlying issues, we can do our part by working on the aspects that directly involve us. We can work on normalising expressions ‘died by suicide’, we can avoid oversimplifying the reasons behind suicide and we can use resources available to us in order to stop perpetuating stigma surrounding mental illness and suicide.

Read more on how to report responsibly on suicide here:
– https://www.poynter.org/news/reporting-suicide

– https://www.samaritans.org/media-centre/media-guidelines-reporting-suicide/advice-journalists-suicide-reporting-dos-and-donts

– http://www.suicide.org/media-guidelines-for-suicide.html

– http://reportingonsuicide.org/recommendations/

Andy Kohrs

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