In recent years, some newspapers are beginning to report on suicides, in particular those that highlight wider societal issues such as bullying or homophobia, writes Brunswick News ombudswoman Patricia Graham.
By Patricia Graham, ombudswoman for Brunswick News Inc.
Joshua David Jewett, a 31-year-old man from Fredericton, went missing in February. On May 6, the Fredericton Police Force issued a statement saying that remains found several days earlier in Odell Park were Mr. Jewett’s. His mother, Margaret Jewett, was quoted in The Daily Gleaner saying that at least her son was now at peace. “With someone who’s so sick like that,” she said, “they need peace”.
Twelve years before his death, Joshua Jewett had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. That in itself is tragic, the loss of his life only more so.
Did Joshua Jewett commit suicide? I don’t know. What I do know is that the Fredericton Police Force stated that foul play was not suspected in his death. These are code words commonly used in cases of suicide. There are others, like the use of the word “suddenly” in obituaries.
Should newspapers report on suicides? For more than half a century now, most have not, except in cases involving public figures or rare stories about suicide pacts or murder/suicides. This restraint is based on fear of contagion, or the copy-cat syndrome: as journalists, we’d been told by mental health professionals that if we wrote about suicide, vulnerable people would be more likely to kill themselves. Studies were cited that seemed to support the notion. What responsible newspaper would want to publish something that might lead someone to kill themselves?
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The self-censorship has also been based in the fact that journalists are part of their communities and newspapers reflect their societies. To a large extent our society continues to treat suicide as a taboo subject, something shameful that is to be hidden. There is concern that a story about suicide could attach stigma not only to the person who has died so tragically, but also to their surviving family and friends.
In recent years however, the landscape has begun to shift, and some newspapers are beginning to report on suicides, in particular those that highlight wider societal issues such as bullying or homophobia. This is due in part to increased awareness and coverage of mental illness and social isolation, and in part to further research that suggests that media reporting of suicide is not a factor in contagion. The approach isn’t to just report on a particular suicide, but to present it in the context of larger public interest issues.
Reporting on suicide – whether to do it, when to do it and how to do it – is just one of the topics covered in an excellent new website created in Canada for journalists. Mindset is an initiative that offers guidance and research to journalists writing about mental illness. Its editorial content is controlled by the Canadian Journalism Forum on Violence and Trauma. The Forum‘s partners in the initiative are CBC News and The Mental Health Commission of Canada. Contributors to the site include senior journalists, mental health professionals and academics. According to its website, Mindsest is all about doing better journalism. Stories that are more factual, more complete and don't contribute to stigma. We celebrate journalism that challenges wrong and outdated assumptions about mental illness, provides factual information, and probes unfairness and systemic flaws…
Every journalist can benefit from the site’s excellent content. When it comes to reporting on mental illness and suicide, Mindset offers some important food for thought. Newspapers used to report on suicide in great detail; once they stopped, the rate of suicide did not decline. Indeed it has increased during the period of restraint. Contagion does occur, but it has more to do with relationships than reporting. Young people, who may be more vulnerable to copycat syndrome, don’t generally read newspapers, and on the internet they can find anything they want to know about suicide, including glorifications and detailed how-to’s. At any moment, one in five Canadians is suffering from some form of mental illness. Mental disorder is a factor – not the cause, but a factor – in the great majority of suicides.
The stigma that envelops both mental illness and suicide is a formidable barrier to understanding. Without open, knowledgeable discussion we cannot begin to understand the nature or challenges of mental illness, and we cannot begin to find solutions until we understand.
What are your thoughts on whether newspapers should report on suicide? Let me hear from you at email@example.com.
This column was originally published by Brunswick News Inc., and reprinted here with Graham's permission.
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