Death in the News: reporting of suicide

Freeman Brothers was first established in Horsham, West Sussex in 1855. The independent funeral director now has a further three offices – in Billingshurst, Crawley and Hurstpierpoint – and continues to offer advice and support to many local people. This week, Becky shares more on how the media reports on deaths – the following post […]

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Freeman Brothers was first established in Horsham, West Sussex in 1855. The independent funeral director now has a further three offices – in Billingshurst, Crawley and Hurstpierpoint – and continues to offer advice and support to many local people. This week, Becky shares more on how the media reports on deaths – the following post specifically references deaths by suicide.

Last week I discussed quite generally how the media handles the reporting of death. There have been a couple of specific instances recently which brought me to consider the topic, one of which was a discussion via comments on a news article reporting the death of a celebrity. The person who had died was in their 20s, and the report referenced the fact that they’d openly struggled with mental health issues, but was careful not to draw any firm conclusions as to the cause of their death. Commenters were critical of this, accusing the publication of shying away from the topic of suicide; with suicide remaining a taboo in much of the world, this can be seen as a damaging portrayal, but working for a funeral director, I wondered whether there might be another reason for their turn of phrase.

Speculation around the circumstances of any death is unfair on those who knew the person who has died, and can also have an impact on others reading the news. In my previous blog post, I referenced the Independent Press Standards Organisation’s (IPSO) guidelines, and they produce specific ones relating to suicide.

My instinct had been correct: the guidelines mention how journalists should report both the process and outcome of an inquest when a coroner determines that a death is caused by suicide. The guidance also references celebrities, and the fact that their profile can cause members of the public to want to imitate their behaviour or feel an affinity to them – known as a parasocial relationship.

The guidance recognises that it is important to report on suicides, as they are a public health concern, and the biggest killer of those aged under 35 in the UK. It also acknowledges that those bereaved by suicide are often suffering from a particularly complex kind of bereavement. There has been detailed research undertaken in a number of countries regarding public response to the media reporting of suicide, and there is also mention of the fact that including coverage of those who have overcome a crisis is important. I find this interesting, and would agree that it could be helpful to use the opportunity of raising awareness of a suicide to also present the variety of endings to stories – whilst some people die following a mental health crisis, others will survive and continue with their lives.

Another part of the guidance that I appreciate is the section regarding language. It states that, ‘IPSO does not seek to limit the language that journalists can use…’, and continues to issue a reminder about the Suicide Act (1961), which decriminalised suicide in the UK. For those who have been impacted by suicide or mental health issues, this can be an incredibly sensitive issue, and one which I learned about several years ago when undergoing an Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training course. Lots of people still refer to ‘committing’ suicide – the inference with the use of ‘commit’ is that an act is criminal (for example, one would commit assault or theft), whereas suicide may be something that a person is morally opposed to, but it is not against the law in this country. To imply as much post-1961 can be incredibly offensive, and whilst alternative language (such as ‘died by suicide’) can feel inelegant, or harsh, it is factually correct and compassionate.

It is clear from only a glance that the guidance is updated regularly – it references ‘social media crazes’, which are a thoroughly contemporary phenomenon, and the fact that celebrity news has a significant impact on the general public. Again, I think this demonstrates good practice, as IPSO is obviously making a concerted effort to actively support journalists and members of the public. Several charities are referenced at the end of the guidance, with the focus on mental health support and suicide prevention, and if I were to provide further signposting it would be to the charity, SOBS (Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide) and the public health information Help is at Hand (which we at Freeman Brothers also provide upon request).  

Suicide remains a complex issue, and further awareness of how to communicate and advise safely is helpful to many.

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Written by Becky Hughes

Community Co-Ordinator

September 6, 2023

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