Annual Report 2001 : Suicide Reporting
The reporting of suicide remains difficult in New Zealand, a fact to which the International Press Institute drew attention in its World Press Freedom Review of 1998. The rate of suicide in this country is one of the highest in the world despite the number of deaths involving young people in 1999 falling to their lowest since 1987.
New Zealand's print media increasingly regard the issue of suicide as one of urgent public interest and a major public health problem. But newspapers and magazines still face what the Press Council has called the "impenetrable thicket" of the Coroners Act 1988, especially Section 29, which deals with suicides. Section 29 says that coroners may provide publicly the basic details of a deceased person's age, name and occupation, and find that a death was self-inflicted. They have discretion also to release the "manner" of a death, but because of confusion about what that term means, few coroners exercise that power.
The Act is under review by the Government and the Council agrees with calls to relax reporting restrictions on self-inflicted deaths, given the incidence of suicide in New Zealand. Not surprisingly, therefore, newspapers are gradually testing the water by more often reporting suicides in their communities in order to explore their causes where there may be a public interest. Inevitably complaints have followed and the Council wholly accepts that this is a sensitive matter involving the private grief of families and, sometimes, the cultural practices of the diverse races living in this land.
In the year under review, the Council upheld several complaints about lack of fairness in the coverage by the Manawatu Evening Standard of the death by suicide of a 16-year-old schoolboy. The adjudication paid particular attention to the effect on the school community of the newspaper's scrutiny, which included some highly visible front-page coverage.
Later, in an editorial commenting on the Press Council's finding, the newspaper defended its right to look at the subject of suicide.
The Press Council does not disagree. The question it considered, however, was more the nature of the newspaper's approach. The full adjudication is No.855.
The Council has, in previous findings, referred to the benefits of publicity. In an earlier adjudication, it said:
"Blaming the messenger for causing or worsening the problem, whose basic causes must be sought elsewhere, fails to recognise the important and cleansing nature of the blaze of publicity being focused on the darker side of New Zealand life."
However, that greater openness, if it can be achieved, does not absolve editors of the responsibility of recognising that suicide is a complex phenomenon, usually with inter-linked causes, and with effects on many people, not only the deceased person's family and friends.
Among those who watch with some trepidation the expansion of media interest in suicide are a number of mental health professionals who continue to express their fear that such media interest will trigger a "copycat" effect. Yet New Zealand's restrictive reporting regimes, set alongside the rise in suicides in recent years, would suggest the opposite.
The Council has now dealt with several complaints about the reporting of suicide. In order to reach its findings, some study of the subject was obviously necessary. The Council found, as a result, that the research often relied upon by health experts is not as conclusive as it had been led to believe.
In general terms, therefore, when it comes to reporting suicide in New Zealand, editors need to continue to exercise the utmost responsibility to readers. Reports should, in the Council's view, be tempered by awareness of the language used, the way articles are displayed and treated, and, where possible, reports should be accompanied by information about where help can be found.
The Council is firmly of the view that the Press has a crucial role in any public debate about suicide, its causes and its effects. It subscribes to the philosophy of the Canadian Suicide Information and Education Centre: "Suicide affects us all. Let's talk about it."