Sunday, April 17, 2011

Reporting "Foul play not suspected"

My late friend's art had clues revealing mental illness.
Recently, the Western Journalism Project London ran an online story Youth suicide: Breaking the silence.

Having worked for newspapers since the early '70s, my interest was immediate. I cannot count the number of stories that I have been involved with that were silenced when it became clear suicide was the cause of death.

As a general rule, neither paper at which I worked reported suicides in any depth. Give no details was the working rule. Even suicide attempts were off limits.

Once I turned in pictures of a young girl lying injured on pavement near London's Harris Park. She was being comforted by passersby as they awaited the arrival of an ambulance. Very dramatic stuff. The pictures never ran. The girl had injured herself jumping from a roadway overpass in a failed suicide attempt.

Now, I am reading that media outlets, traditionally afraid of provoking copycat suicides by reporting suicides without constraints, may be dropping the somewhat self imposed ban. Is this true? Larry Cornies, professor of journalism at Conestoga College, believes it is:

“We’re in it,” said Cornies. “We have come from this era where we saw it (suicide) as a great taboo and we’re now beginning to understand suicide much more as a mental illness and we’re adjusting our plans accordingly.”

"The copycat argument that has been used so often in the past doesn’t hold as much sway as it used to,” he said.

If Cornies is right, I hope the media has considered the guidelines for reporting suicide published by the Canadian Psychiatric Association (CPA). According to the CPA, there is solid evidence showing that media reporting of suicides is linked to copycat suicides among young people under 24 years of age.

This is not a new position. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the United States reported the same thing back in 1989. A national workshop addressed suicide contagion and made recommendations to reduce the number of suspected media-related suicides.

Both the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention (CASP) and the Center for Disease Control (CDC) have provided the media with specific guidelines on reporting suicide. Unfortunately, many reporters are not acquainted with the guidelines. I wonder if the journalism students at Western know about the guidelines.

A quick check of media reports revealed many, possibly all, in the MSM media in Canada handled the suicide of the former student with traditional care. CBC News reported that the young, missing student "suffered from a medical condition that could be harmful to her health." CTV said the young woman had "been found dead. . . . foul play is not suspected."

Suicide: Quick reference card (Australia)
Why the journalism students would report "We’re now beginning to understand suicide much more as a mental illness" puzzles me. When I was in art school in the '60s, I knew a young man who took his life; It did not come as a surprise. Everyone, students, faculty and family, all had worried about his mental health and apparent depression. In fact, one art instructor had arranged a meeting with a mental health doctor but the student killed himself the weekend before his appointment.

In Australia the government has the Mindframe National Media Initiative providing accurate information about suicide and mental illness. The goal is to influence the portrayal of these issues in the news media, on stage and in film.

In Great Britain  The Media Wise Trust has released Sensitive Coverage Saves Lives --- a move to improve the portrayal of suicide in the media.

I'm proud to say that both the Sault Daily Star and The London Free Press both generally followed the guidelines on reporting suicide while I was employed at those papers.

The media is not always insensitive.

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