In My Opinion: Alana Atkinson: When it’s what you don’t say that matters

IT’S a sad fact that around two people take their own lives every day in Scotland.

Encouragingly, the suicide rate has reduced by 17 per cent over the past ten years. At the same time, we’ve seen a noticeable improvement in the way the media reports suicide.

Knowing that there is strong evidence that sensationalist or insensitive reporting can increase suicide, especially by a particular method, are these findings merely a co-incidence? Or are the two interlinked?

At Choose Life, NHS Health Scotland’s national programme for preventing suicide, we firmly believe that it’s a mixture of initiatives, delivered by the Scottish Government, NHS, local government, voluntary sector, the police and the media – working individually and collaboratively – that can have the effect of reducing suicide.

The media is influential. It has the power to convey information to millions of people who might not otherwise have had found out about it, or who, in an already vulnerable state of mind, could misuse it.

We’ve come a long way since a gratuitous newspaper article that listed Britain’s most common locations for suicide. Or those articles that reveal so much detail of a suicide, that it can be copied. Indeed, of the 26 key rulings made by the Press Complaints Commission – outlined in the most recent edition of the Editors’ Codebook (2012) – there were no rulings later than 2010, and only four were from 2009 onwards.

While we should bear in mind a lot of complaints are resolved directly between complainant and the newspaper concerned, I think we should take it as a good sign that the UK Press are reporting more responsibly and sensitively than ever before.

That’s not to say we can be complacent. There are people who will die by suicide, no matter what. But, for the most part, suicide can be prevented. So there is a prevailing need for the media to be mindful it is doing the right thing.

As well as mitigating against the risk of copycat suicides, we also know from conversations with people who have been bereaved by suicide that sensitive and responsible media reporting can impact positively on them coming to terms with the sudden loss. This in itself can prevent further deaths, as people recently bereaved by suicide are at greater risk themselves.

We know that the media can – and do – report suicide-related news that is in the public’s interest in a way that doesn’t provide excessive detail about the method, or present suicide as an appealing option through glamorising the events that led to the death.

That’s why it was disappointing to see insensitive reporting over two consecutive days during the past fortnight.

A teenage girl, who died by poisoning, was the subject of media attention due to the drug commonly being used in lethal injections in America. It was irresponsible of one newspaper to name the drug when a simple Google search can lead vulnerable people to find details of how to obtain it. It was also disappointing to read the phrase, ‘death row drug’, as this serves to sensationalise the death and draw attention to a method that is relatively unknown in the UK.

On the same day, it was also alleged that a young couple died by hanging themselves weeks apart over the heartbreak of splitting up – the particular pathos arising from the detail that the same branch of the same tree was used in the deaths. Although well-intended by the coroner in an attempt to explain the suicides, the reporting of the inquest’s narrative – that the scenario was reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet – was unhelpful, as this could romanticise suicide and lead those in a similar situation to think of suicide as a ‘positive’ thing to do.

Graphic images remain a further cause for concern in suicide reporting. While the commonplace practice of showing a picture of a notorious suicide spot, when reporting similar deaths, brings further publicity to the location, what is more concerning are the images that show the actual act of suicide, such as falling from a bridge, and the height of the drop. Alarmingly, some newspapers have done just that recently in reporting the deaths, by suicide, of a couple in China.

While the media has the right to report an inquest, or public incidents they think people will want to know about, it also has the responsibility to filter information accordingly for a mass audience who might be influenced by the information they see.

Fulfilling this responsibility is something we, at Choose Life, are committed to seeing happen.

We are confident that a collaborative approach to suicide prevention does have a positive impact.

Choose Life is fortunate to work closely with Samaritans and National Union of Journalists who are passionate about guiding the media on responsible reporting. Their simple, clear guidelines are a must for anyone acting as a mouthpiece on suicide, and even the busiest of us will benefit from checking to ensure we’re making the right decisions about what we communicate.

Samaritans’ guidelines can be seen here and NUJ guidelines are currently being revised by journalism researchers at Strathclyde University. They will be launched in Glasgow on Thursday, May 2 in Glasgow.

Why don’t you come along and discuss the issues with us? You can register here.

So, with this in mind, let’s learn from recent events and keep going with the good practice. It’s helping to make a difference.

Alana Atkinson is the Choose Life programme manager at NHS Health Scotland.