How should journalists report cases of suicide?

Friday November 22 2019

Odoobo C. Bichachi

Odoobo C. Bichachi 

By Odoobo C. Bichachi

In the last few months, the media in Uganda has reported many incidences of suicide. The most reported about case, perhaps, was that of a Makerere University student who took his life allegedly after his businesses went bust and he could not pay his loans.

By a simple count in the Daily Monitor online alone, there were seven cases of suicide reported in the most graphic details between April and October. The triple suicide reported under the headline, Three commit suicide in Kigezi in four days (Daily Monitor, September 23, 2019) was quite descriptive about each case, as were the others.
Suicide is a very traumatic episode not just for the victims but more so for the immediate family, relatives, friends and the wider community. How this is reported in the media therefore has potential to exacerbate the pain or create more understanding about the problem and hopefully stem its recurrence.

Research in the western world indicates that there is a correlation between media coverage and increase in cases of suicide, especially among young people. This is especially when media explicitly shows the method of suicide, plays up the assumed trigger, and uses graphic images and sensational headlines.
This is the reason in many countries, notably the Scandinavian countries, the media generally does not carry stories of suicide and if it does for reason of prominence, it simply runs it as a death with very little details about the method, etc.

In Africa, and Uganda in particular, we tend to have a morbid curiosity for details of tragedy; especially if it is not about anyone close to us. This is perhaps what drives the graphic media coverage of otherwise very traumatic incidents such as suicide. The online news websites that are not guided by any media ethics are the worst at this, painting graphic images, feeding speculation and sometimes mocking the deceased. Should it remain so? Surely not!
Without expressly mentioning suicide, the NMG Editorial Guidelines have a clause on covering such incidents. It is, however, regularly flouted; understandably so because it is expansive rather than specific. It states:

“Intrusion into grief or shock: In cases involving personal grief or shock, enquiries should be carried out and approaches made with sympathy, empathy and discretion.”
How best then should media cover cases of suicide? The United Kingdom’s the Independent Press Standards Organisation in its editors’ code of ethics provides perhaps a starting point between the Scandinavian extreme of “no coverage” and the African “morbid curiosity”. It states thus:

“Clause 5: Reporting suicide – When reporting suicide, to prevent simulative acts care should be taken to avoid excessive detail of the method used, while taking into account the media’s right to report legal proceedings.” -
In addition, Papyrus UK, a mental health support organisation recommends that reporters and editors endeavour to avoid the following:

  • Splashing the story unless justified by profile of deceased.
  • Bold and dramatic headlines to describe the incident.
  • Details of suicide method used, especially explicit descriptions e.g. names of pills or chemicals taken, types of rope used.
  • Naming and showing locations and means such as railway lines, bridges, tall buildings or cliffs.
  • Speculating about the reason or ‘trigger’ for the suicide; there is never only one reason why a young person ends their life. Contributing factors are complex and can include individual risk, current life events and surrounding social situations.
  • Making the deceased appear heroic or brave or that the suicide was a solution to a problem.
  • Romanticising suicides, linking suicide to a particular ‘cult’.
  • Using large photographs of the deceased, especially of pretty young women, which can also romanticise suicide and encourage viral social media distribution.
  • Endorsing myths around suicide.
  • Excessive, dramatic, sensational headlines and reporting.
  • And finally, include references to support services.
    Ultimately, reporting on suicide should not be approached from the perspective of a crime – which apparently still stands in our Penal Code – but rather from a mental health perspective. That helps create the frame of a victim as opposed to a criminal which helps the reporter to cover the story with more empathy and understanding.
    The Uganda Journalists Code of Ethics is quite shallow and should be up for revision and expansion. This will help media practitioners navigate through new and old challenges of handling news.