Media: The Reporting of Suicide

 From "Media Watch", ABC TV, Australia,  August 2, 1999
            Transcripts  2/8/99
            The media seems to have problems living up to all the standards on
            highly sensitive issues. Take for instance, the codes and guidelines
            which revolve around the reporting of suicide. There was a tragic
            case in Western Australia in early July.
            Policewoman: "Unfortunately this is a very tragic loss. We have
                one adult female and five small children. They have been
                confirmed to be deceased."
                (ABC News, 04/07/99)
                Richard Ackland: The reporting of this murder-suicide came two weeks
            after new guidelines had been launched, by the federal health
            minister. Dr Woolridge said:
            "While the media has generally shown a sensitive and responsible
                approach to suicide, in an attempt to minimise copy cat
               attempts, improvements can still be made."
                (Press Release 22/6/99)
                Richard Ackland: The guidelines and information kit were the result
            of extensive talks between health professionals and the media
            industry, and they add to codes some organisations already have in
            place. The recommended practice isn't binding, and it has four main
            "Location: ...
                "Locate the report or story inside the newspaper and not on the
                front page, or as a headline on television or radio news."
                (Dept of Health. Media Resource. p4)
                Richard Ackland: When the Western Australian tragedy was reported in
            early July, no one thought very highly of that editorial
            "Gas Horror" (Sunday Times, 4/7/99)
                "Suicide note tells of mum's despair" (The Australian, 5/7/99)
                "6 young lives wasted, why?" (The Age, 5/7/99)
                "A mother's cry for help, too late" (5/7/99 West Australian)
                "A woman and her 5 children found dead in the family car."
                (Channel Seven, 4/7/99)
                "Tonight, family tragedy, a mother and 5 children die in a
                forest murder suicide.' (Channel Ten, 4/7/99)
                Richard Ackland: That headline from Channel Ten also broke the
            second recommended practice which is to:
            "Avoid using the word 'suicide' in the headline."
                (Dept of Health media Resource; Suicide, p4)
                Richard Ackland: It went down a treat as well. 
            "Suicide note tells of mum's despair" (The Australian, 5/7/99)
                "Suicide mum kills five kids" (Sun-Herald, 4/7/99)
                'Mum's suicide note a cry for help" (Mercury, p7 57/99)
                'Suicide letter found too late" (Herald-Sun P5, 5/7/99)
                Richard Ackland: The third principle concerned the use of
            "Avoid using photographs with suicide stories."
                "Photographs should not feature the suicide scene, (or) precise
                location ..."
                (Dept of Health, Media Resource - Suicide)
            Richard Ackland: As you can see every effort was made to achieve
            maximum restraint in that respect. Channel Ten even had a map: 
            "The bodies were found at Karragullen 50 KM from Perth, gassed
                inside the family car ....
                "Police believe the 25 year old Carlisle woman drove the family
                van to state forest at Karragullen before midday. 4 hours later
                all were found dead in the car."
                (Channel Ten 4/7/99)
                "a trail bike rider discovered the mini van in remote bushland
                in Perth's South Eastern outskirts late yesterday afternoon....
                "In the van a boy who would have turned 8 today, 5 year-old twin
                boys, and 2 girls aged 4 and 2..."
                (Channel Seven 4/7/99)
                Richard Ackland: The other significant recommendation was... 
            "Method of self-harm: ...
                "Refrain from detailed discussion of the method used for suicide
                and attempted suicide."
                (Dept of Health, media Resource Suicide, p4)
                Richard Ackland: That was like a red rag to a rhinoceros...
            The West Australian, The Sunday Times, The Sun-Herald, and The
            Australian all detailed the means by which they died.
            Your ABC broke its own code to report the detail:
            "Police found a plastic tube connected from the exhaust into the
                (ABC News, 04/07/99)
                Richard Ackland: And so did Channel Nine:
            Deborah Cornwall: "Police say a plastic tube had been used to
                feed exhaust fumes through a window, asphyxiating the 25 year
                old mother, the two boys and the three girls."
                (Channel Nine News, 4/7/99)
                Richard Ackland: And on and on it went. It was news, and it was
            reported luridly. Sensationalism is the very thing the guidelines
            were established to avoid, because the risk of copy-cat incidents is
            very high.
            Australian research on newspapers confirms overseas studies:
            "Suicides increase immediately after a suicide story has been
                published in the media."
                (Effects of Newspaper Stories on the Incidence of Suicide in
                Australia: A Research Note)
            Richard Ackland: It can impact on the vulnerable.
            There is indeed an interesting pattern to the recent
            murder-suicides. Last October outside Perth, a case had been
            "The car was spotted from the air late yesterday 130KM north of
                Perth. Inside, police found the bodies of 32 year old Ronald
                Jonker and his 3 children: stepson 7 year old David, son 5 year
                old Aaron, and a daughter, 17 month old Ashley. There was a hose
                connected to the exhaust pipe which was put inside the vehicle."
                (ABC News, 23/10/98)
                Richard Ackland: Did this incident affect the mother who died with
            her children in early July? The research suggests the possibility
            that this sort of reporting can be a trigger.
            Then three weeks later, also in Western Australia:
            "How could he?...
                "Dad kills kids in 'copycat' tragedy"
                (The Sunday Mail (Qld), 25/07/99, p1)
                "Dad, four kids gassed in car" (Sunday Telegraph, 25/07/99)
                "Murder-suicide man faced charges" (The Australian 26/07/99)
                "The father who loved his children to death" (SMH 26/07/99)
                "Not Again" (The Sun-Herald, 25/06/99)
                Richard Ackland: There was exposure across the spectrum. 
            Newsreader: "Police say the man who died along with his children
                in yesterday's family murder-suicide had a violent past.
                (Channel Seven, News, 25/07/99)
                Richard Ackland: Reporting these tragedies requires heightened
            sensitivity. Fascinatingly, commercial TV already has a code of
            practice on this very topic. 
            "4.3.9: ...
                "The report must be straightforward, and must not include
                graphic details or images, or glamorise suicide in any way;"
                (FACTS. Commercial TV Code of Practice)
                Richard Ackland: The ABC has one too: 
            "If reported at all, suicides will be reported in moderate terms
                and will usually avoid details of method."
                (ABC Codes of Practice: News, Current Affairs and Information
                Richard Ackland: For years, the Press Council has resisted issuing
            "The Press Council can see no useful purpose in drawing up
                'rules'. the council prefers to rely on the continuing
                responsible attitude of the press to the problem"
                (Press Release, November 1994)
                Richard Ackland: But last year it begrudgingly issued some loose
            guidelines. The issue is not that the media shouldn't report these
            stories, it's more that they shouldn't be milked for every possible
            drop of emotion.      
            © 1999 Australian Broadcasting Corporation