Sunday, 27 November 2011

An 'apparent suicide' - are we right to cover it?

The death of Gary Speed provides some insight into the coverage of an apparent suicide by UK newspapers, and begs the question: are we right to cover suicides?

A brief look at some of the major newspapers revealed that the following mentioned suicide in the headline:

The Daily Mail: Wales football manager found dead in 'apparent suicide' Welsh football manager Gary Speed 'commits suicide' at 42. 

The Telegraph: Wales Manager Gary Speed dies, aged 42, after committing suicide.

The Mirror: Gary Speed dead: Wales manager found hanged age 42.

The Times: Wales manager Speed found hanged.

The Sun: 'Suicide' of Wales Boss Gary Speed: Prem League legend found hanged at home, aged 42.

Whereas none of these newspapers mentioned 'suicide':

The Guardian: Wales manager Gary Speed has died, FA of Wales announces.

The Independent: Wales manager Gary Speed found dead.

The Daily Star: Football manager Gary Speed dies.

The Daily Express: Wales coach Gary Speed found dead aged 42. 
This brief look at the initial coverage of a single story isn't representative of anything, but the coverage caught my interest because I couldn't remember remember reading about a specific suicide in the Norwegian media, despite being aware that about 1 in 5 Norwegians become depressed at some point during their lives, and that suicides are a problem there.

That is because, up to 2006, Norway's equivalent of the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) stated in its code of ethics that: “Suicide, suicide attempts and mental illnesses should not be reported except for in extraordinary cases”. Today it states that journalists should “Show care when reporting on suicide and suicide attempts. Avoid reporting that is unnecessary to fulfill the public’s need for information. Avoid describing the method or any other factors that can lead to more acts of suicide.” This piece on the coverage of suicides in the Norwegian media is worth a read.

A number of Norwegian newspapers and broadcasters wrote about the death of Gary Speed, but out of those I looked at, just one mentioned that it was an apparent suicide - it wasn't mentioned in the headline and no details were given. 

What is the right approach - should journalist refrain from reporting on suicides, or do so cautiously only in those cases where we perceive an overriding public interest? Or perhaps we should be free to write whatever we want, sure in the belief that our freedom of speech trumps all. What seems problematic to me is that in cases like this, some journalists appear more interested in what's of interest to the public than what's in the public interest. A compromise might be that those who take it upon themselves to report on suicides - despite the risk of copycat suicides - when no public interest is apparent, include some numbers below their story.

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