Reporting suicide


Suicides, like all tragic events, raise problematic questions for journalists. They are naturally drawn to inquire into events that differ sharply from the norm. Reporters ask questions about the dead person, the situation that may have led to the fatal ending, the factors that may tell a larger story. Death, however much a fact of life, remains startling, something that intrudes into ordinary experience. Death is always a noteworthy moment. But not all deaths are newsworthy. Suicide is different from other deaths. Its inherent drama attracts news attention. Continue to page 44

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The Center for Media Freedom & Responsibility (CMFR) has noted the recklessness of media in reporting suicides. From 2007 to 2013, CMFR published ϐive monitors on the media coverage of suicide, two of them within 2013. In monitoring suicide coverage, CMFR reviewed three Manila broadsheets (Philippine Daily Inquirer, The Philippine Star and Manila Bulletin), four news programs (ABS-CBN 2’s TV Patrol, GMA-7’s 24 Oras, Solar TV’s Solar Network News and TV5’s Aksyon) and online news sites. Netizens also complained that the media coverage of suicide was “not responsible enough” and “unfair.” Others said reports were “misleading” and “focused on too much drama.” Some also said the media “oversimpliϐied suicide.” Newspapers and their websites published suicide reports on the police or crime beats and the metro or provincial news sections; some reports even landed on some newspapers’ front page. Some broadcast news programs even aired footage of the actual suicide. There were also interviews with family members asking them to share the details of how the person committed suicide. In general, the news reports tended to simplify, concluding that there was only one factor that ϐigured in the decision of the person to take his or her life. SUICIDE STATISTICS Suicide rates in the Philippines have gone up from 1984 to 2005. The National Statistics Ofϐice said suicide rates increased from 0.46 to seven out of every 200,000 males and 0.24 to two for every 200,000 females. The increasing trend is particularly pronounced among younger people aged 24 and below. In 2007, a survey of the Department of Health found that 15 out of 900 teens tried to commit suicide. Last March 15, a student of Behavioral Sciences at the University of the Philippines (UP) Manila took her own life. Kristel Tejada was just 16 years old. Her father was a part-time taxi driver; her mother, a housewife. She was a freshman who wanted to ϐinish her studies and become a doctor so she could help her family rise from poverty. She was her parents’ hope. First reported by the student paper, Manila Collegian, Kristel’s death immediately gained wider media attention. With all its news values, journalists deemed the suicide newsworthy. The reports identiϐied her, displayed her photo, and even showed her father re-enacting how he found his daughter lying lifeless on the ϐloor. A portion of the suicide note was also published. The news reports revealed that Kristel was beset by her family’s inability to pay her tuition, forcing her to take leave of her studies in UP. The national media feasted on the theory that the University’s no late payment policy was the sole cause of the suicide. Journalists portrayed the UP administration as “cold hearted and ruthless” while Kristel was a “martyr whose death could ignite a variety of causes.” Kristel became the “poster girl for school reforms.” Some reports claimed that her mother even knelt before UP Manila Chancellor Manuel Agulto and begged him to allow Kristel to attend her classes. Later interviews with the UP administration proved that this never happened.

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There was a surplus of reports on the protests of students and other groups insinuating that UP should answer for the suicide of Kristel. Interviews with the family uncovered other reasons that may have caused her to take her own life. Her parents admitted they frequently had fights over lack of money, but they insisted that the forced leave of absence was the real reason behind their daughter’s suicide. Other sources said the thought of not being able to go to school depressed Kristel the most. In response to the reports, UP announced that late payment and non-payment of school fees would no longer force students to withdraw their enrolment. Kristel’s father, Christopher Tejada, told media that perhaps his daughter was happy now that the policy had been lifted and that she had helped other students. More recently, the media relied on actual video footage to tell the story. Last May 8, a man committed suicide at the Metro Rail Transit (MRT) Guadalupe station. Television news reports aired the MRT CCTV or closed circuit television footage of the actual suicide. The method and location of the suicide were clearly evident from the video. The reports detailed what would be obvious about the condition of the suicide’s body: He was pinned under the train wheels, his body was crushed, his internal organs were exposed. An anchorperson commented “Pwede bang uminom na lang ng lason (Why not just drink poison)?” Two other suicides were recorded on CCTV. A woman jumped on the tracks at the MRT Shaw Boulevard Station last January 3. Another took her life at the Light Rail Transit EDSA station on Aug. 30, 2012. Reports on the two cases were equally callous and careless.

COMPLEX AND COMPLICATED Suicide is a complex issue that should be reported carefully. In its “Suicide Prevention Guidelines,” the World Health Organization (WHO) warns journalists against assigning blame and giving the public simplistic reasons for a suicide. In the coverage of Kristel’s death, the media participated in the blame game and attributed the suicide to a single factor. Usually there are complex and complicated reasons for suicide. In reporting suicide, there should be a balance between the media’s task of delivering information to the public and its responsibility to minimize harm. However, the media often opt for the former at the cost of the latter. Gory details about the condition of the body are as offensive as private details of the suicide’s personal life. Some details are often not relevant at all to the basic public need for information and are better left unsaid. Kristel’s suicide note was published even if it did not provide any explanation for her decision to take her life; she did not mention her enforced leave from school. The media’s conclusion that this was the reason was not supported by the letter. The publication of the letter was therefore an intrusion into the privacy to which even the dead was still entitled. And the speculation, based on interviews with family members, should have been presented as mere speculation. The WHO has noted that “details of the method or the location a suicide victim uses may lead to copycat suicides. A reporter should not risk providing another person considering suicide with the details of how it can be achieved.”

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des despite the existence of government and non-government agencies that could offer help and support to vulnerable age readers and viewers. rea

‘Media contribute to awareness of suicide, positively and negatively’
A social media user told CMFR that the student suicides following that of Kristel “could be an offshoot of its gloriϐication by the media. Instead of being offered help, they now had an alternative of what to do with their lives. Not that suicide has to be cast as taboo, but that the media should help prevent its occurring more often. Having it reported and talked about for a long period of time seems to benumb the vulnerable victims to think it is an ‘in’ thing, the norm, the best way how to end a problem that seems to be unsolved.” Some news reports dwelt on how well the victim was remembered and the community’s grief over her passing. Such reports, according to the WHO, may lead people to think that suicide is a way to become famous. SEEKING HELP The anchor’s comment that taking poison was better, a crude attempt at humor, had no place in news report. The WHO points out that “suicide coverage is an opportunity to provide the public with information and resources that could save lives.” This can be achieved through “highlighting alternatives to suicide, providing information on help lines and community resources, and publicizing risk indicators and warning signs.” Instead of speculating on its causes, apportioning blame, or even making light of suicides, journalists should consult experts who can educate the public about suicide, and provide their audience details on how the same experts can be reached by distressed individuals. The reports on the three metro transit cases failed to include such helpful information,

MEDIA IMPACT ME W WHO’s suicide prevention resource for media professionals c concurs: “Television inϐluences suicidal behaviour. There is an increase in suicide up to ten days after television news reports of cases of suicide. As in the print media, highly publicized stories that appear in multiple programs on multiple channels seem to carry the greatest impact.” According to Dr. Dinah Nadera, fellow of the Philippine Psychiatric Association and acting executive director of the Natasha Goulbourn Foundation, a non-proϐit organization dedicated to bringing depression to light, there has been an increase in the calls they receive after media coverage of suicide. “Media contribute to awareness of suicide, positively and negatively.” Nadera recalled several instances in which suicide coverage was repeatedly run on TV and radio. The reports often pointed to a single cause and put the blame on r someone or something. Some reports took advantage of the so family’s grief and even hailed the act of suicide as heroic. The fam suicide, hence, is not seen in the right context. sui Nadera warns the media not to feed people with stories N that are not helpful to those who may have been encountering tha similar situations. In an article entitled “Suicide in the sim Philippines: A Second Look at the Rates and Ratios,” Nadera Phi said that there is a general perception of an increasing trend in suicide rate based on suicide reports from print and broadcast media, although there is no actual data to definitely establish the connection. EDITORIAL POLICIES The SANE Media Centre’s Mindframe “Guidelines for Media Reporting of Suicide” suggests that media handlers “consider whether the story needs to be run at all.” If the report is not in good taste, editors have the prerogative to publish the story or not. Media organizations in the Philippines have their respective policies on reporting events. However, only a few have specific guidelines for reporting suicide. While the Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster ng Pilipinas and ABS-CBN News and Current Affairs have guidelines in interviewing victims and injured or bereaved persons, they have no standards exclusive to suicide reporting. To their credit, the Inquirer and GMA News and Public Affairs have included in their ethics manuals rules on covering suicide. The Inquirer’s “The Stylebook” notes that in reporting suicides and deaths, “Newspapers have to be compassionate; they have to question the need to report suicides in all cases, particularly when the suicide is not a public ofϐicial or public ϐigure.” The GMA News and Public Affairs’ “Ethics and Editorial Manual” (©2011) offers a more detailed set of rules. It suggests that: “Suicides must be reported sensitively and only when newsworthy, such as when the deceased is a public ϐigure. Since suicide reporting has been found to occasionally lead to more suicides, our stories must avoid discussing details of the method, speculating on the motive, or implying that it was a solution to the

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It is fairly well established that the media should respect the privacy of grieving families and should take care not to impose another burden on them by interviewing them in their most difficult moments. FROM THE CMFR “ETHICS MANUAL” CMFR has pointed out in its ethics manual that “Grief is private reckoning, not public spectacle. Ask permission before you barge into a wake and burial rites with your obtrusive cameras and tape recorders. Tread gently when asking questions and be sensitive to moments when emotions run high and the bereaved would rather be left alone. Howling before the cameras and mouthing off may feel cathartic at the moment, but when the calm returns, few people relish being shown at their most vulnerable on national television. Realize too that friends and neighbors who drop in during the wake are not as sophisticated about the media as your regular sources. Thus they are easy prey and can be manipulated to say what you want them through loaded questions. Shame on you if you interview distraught relatives just to get sensational quotes that they may later regret.” Interviewing the grieving family soon after the incident may indeed cause the family to break down and respond in an extreme manner; their reactions are thus often unreliable. The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma thus declares that “problems may be minimized and motives may be complicated” when the media immediately interview the bereaved. FROM THE NATASHA GOULBOURN FOUNDATION The foundation’s acting executive director suggests that media practitioners consider the following when reporting suicide: a. Privacy – What is the possible impact of the report on the life of the survivors? Who provided the information? Is the source reliable? Will news about personal details do something good for the patient or the public? The focus should be on the event, not the personal details of the person. b. One news item about the event is enough. Too much coverage tends to present suicide as a common incident and tends to “normalize” suicidal behaviour. c. Reporting possible situations/conditions surrounding suicide will help dispel myths about the causes of suicide, but a specific cause should not be singled out. d. Detailed descriptions of the method and identification of the exact location of the suicide may influence copycat suicides and popularize suicide spots. e. Balance the reporting. When reporting about suicide, add a sentence or two about where help can be sought if the reader or anyone known to the reader is feeling suicidal or has suicidal thoughts.

individual’s problem, unless these are a central part of the story. “Reporters are urged to obtain the opinion of experts who can give the public advice about mental illnesses or conditions that can lead to suicide. News programs are encouraged to air the contact information of hotlines and other ways the mentally ill can seek help.” However, the existence of reporting guidelines in news organizations does not guarantee that the reporters will abide by their own ethics manual. In fact, there are no existing national guidelines for media reporting of suicide. According to Nadera, one of the major barriers in creating a national suicide prevention plan is the lack of factual data to prove the magnitude of the problem and to support the need for funding and programs. Hence, it is important that the media work hand in hand with mental health organizations to provide responsible and sensitive reports that can help people understand the problems of depression and suicide. The Natasha Goulbourn Foundation recommends that the media also feature people who survived suicide and are leading meaningful lives, who can talk about options for help-seeking, and who can help raise awareness and provide communication that can inϐluence policy-makers on improving the mental wellbeing of the population. The media, being powerful and pervasive, can play a big role in raising awareness on suicide as a public health issue. By providing relevant information that can help the public especially those who are contemplating suicide, the media can actually help discourage suicide. In the end, however, the responsibilities inherent in reporting suicide are simple enough. They’re based on the fundamental human and journalistic responsibility of minimizing harm rather than adding to it.

The following organizations provide assistance to people in distress, who are depressed, and/or are contemplating suicide: Natasha Goulbourn Foundation 24/7 HOPELINE Tel (632) 804-4673; (63) 917 558-4673; (63) 917 572-4673 In Touch Community Services Crisis Line Philippines Tel (632) 893-7606; (632) 893-7603

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