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Journalists now more aware of ethical way to report suicides

By Paul Connolly

Published 12/06/2015

Plea: Simon Hamilton
Plea: Simon Hamilton

Earlier this week, during a Stormont debate, Health Minister Simon Hamilton and others urged the media not to "sensationalise" the reporting of suicides in Northern Ireland.

It was a timely and worthwhile intervention, couched in a reasonable and well-meaning way, coming as it did after the tragic death of Tyrone schoolboy Ronan Hughes because of suspected online blackmail.

Journalists would do well to listen to Mr Hamilton's suggestions, although it has to be said that there have been few cases of "sensationalist" reporting of suicide in recent years.

The reason for this is that the industry itself clamped down several years ago on the reporting of such tragic incidents after consultation with The Samaritans and others. The Editors' Code is crystal clear: Clause 5 - "Intrusion into grief or shock" - states:

i) In cases involving personal grief or shock, inquiries and approaches must be made with sympathy and discretion and publication handled sensitively. This should not restrict the right to report legal proceedings, such as inquests.

ii) When reporting suicide, care should be taken to avoid excessive detail about the method used.

Simply put, any approaches to relatives should be very sympathetic; journalists must avoid publishing graphic details and images to avoid inflicting further grief, and reporting must not detail exactly how the deceased died as this may encourage "copycat" actions.

Northern Ireland's biggest recent media suicide controversy was in November 2009 when the Sunday World published a front-page photograph of a man's body hanging from a bridge on the Belfast-Bangor road.

The publication provoked a storm of controversy, with suicide awareness groups branding it completely irresponsible and the Chief Constable pronouncing himself "shocked".

Matt Baggott said at the time: "I believe our watchwords, both in the media and as the police service, should be compassion and kindness and I would not support the publication of photographs of that distressing nature."

Sunday World editor Jim McDowell defended both the publication of the image and its use on the front page.

The point was, he said, that the police had left the victim hanging in full view for three hours and that thousands of motorists would have seen the grisly scene.

Mr Baggott said that, in the circumstances, the police couldn't have acted any quicker. I think that was a pretty thin excuse - the police should have made more robust attempts to screen the scene off.

Equally, for me, the Sunday World's reasoning didn't wash either. Publication of the picture was shocking and intrusive: publication on the front page, where people can't avoid it, doubly so.

The Press Complaints Commission (PCC) at the time received 70 complaints in just over 24 hours. It didn't investigate because the victim had few relatives in Northern Ireland and none of them complained.

Well, that was back in the days when the PCC was relatively tame. I'd wager a substantial sum that, if a similar image were published today, that Ipso, the PCC's successor, would come down on an errant newspaper like the proverbial ton of bricks. Ipso has the power to call itself in to cases without waiting for a complaint from a family member.

If you have evidence of irresponsible reporting locally then complain to the editor and, if you don't receive satisfaction, complain to Ipso, who will back you if it thinks you have a good case.

That said, I don't think the Sunday World, or any other newspaper, would publish such an image today, because journalists and publishers are more aware of the ethical framework in which they work. And also because the public, in these social media times, quite simply wouldn't tolerate it.

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