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Reporting on suicide responsibly and ethically requires sensitivity and compassion. Yet many newsrooms still grapple with the vocabulary and ways to tell stories without risking causing harm to vulnerable people.

To help you cover this sensitive topic, Ann Luce at Bournemouth University and Sallyanne Duncan at the University of Strathclyde created the Responsible Suicide Reporting (RSR) model and an online tool to go with it. Both aim to help journalists and journalism students make ethical decisions when crafting their stories.

"Global media reporting guidelines on suicide have been around for 20 years, and UK specific guidance at least half of that," says Luce. "Yet suicide reporting continues to be problematic and harmful."

The two academics recently completed a study on adherence to media reporting guidelines in the UK and found that a quarter of stories still provide explicit details of the method and 60 per cent of stories did not contain helpline information. Both of these practices can harm vulnerable readers.

When examining the reasons behind this problem, the duo found that journalists are either not fully aware of the existence of suicide reporting guidelines or are too busy to check them. So they created an online tool to provide easy-to-use and accessible advice.

The RSR model, Luce explained, offers journalists a middle way to minimise harmful content whilst maximising supportive, helpful elements. The model supplements guidance produced by the World Health Organisation, Samaritans, NUJ, and IPSO and embeds that guidance in the storytelling process.

There are three steps to the RSR model:

  • Identifying the story type
  • Applying four ethical rules
  • Applying a standard of moderation.

Step one

First, journalists need to identify which type of suicide story they are reporting on. These can be event-driven (the first recognition that a traumatic event has happened and that a newsworthy death has occurred); post-judicial (focuses on a court case, inquest or other legal proceedings); tribute-driven (where the grieving family and friends pay tribute to the deceased); anniversary; or action as memorial (where the bereaved family and friends undertake a campaign, fundraising event or set up a charity in memory of their loved one).

Step two

Next, Luce explained, the guide asks journalists to apply the four ethical rules:

  • Do not sensationalise: this happens when you put the word suicide in the headline or use ‘beautiful quotes’ such as ‘heaven has a new angel’.
  • Do not stigmatise: this happens when you describe someone as a ‘victim of bullying’, or describe them by their illness (autistic), nationality (Welsh) or religion (Muslim).
  • Do not glorify: Do not focus on suicide as a life choice or focus on a particular method, for example, ‘How Robin Williams took his own life’
  • Do not gratuitously report: do not overly emphasise the reason for death, or focus on dying at a particular location, such as the Golden Gate Bridge, Beachy Head or a railway station.

Step three

Finally, journalists are asked to apply a standard of moderation by asking themselves six critical questions:

  • Have I minimised harm to those affected by suicide?
  • Have I told the truth, yet avoided explicit details of method and location?
  • Have I taken care in producing the story including tone and language?
  • Have I used social media responsibly?
  • Do I avoid stereotypes, harmful content and stigmatising stories?
  • Have I provided support via helplines?

"If journalists answer no to any of these questions," continues Luce, "then there is a problem with the story and they should go back and fix the problem so as not to cause harm to their audience."

Apart from the guidance for journalists, the tool contains a section for journalism educators on teaching suicide reporting to up-and-coming journalists and there are lesson plans as well.

"Since its launch less than a month ago, we've had amazing feedback from both journalists and clinicians alike. One journalist said: ‘Wish this existed in my day as a young reporter'," Luce revealed.

The toolkit has been added to the IPSO guidance pages on suicide, The Ethical Journalism Network, Public Media Alliance, The BBC, TVNZ, International Association of Suicide Prevention, American Association of Suicidology.

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