Reporting suicide: tips for journalists
Recommendations on phraseology
Use phrases like:
- A suicide
- Die by suicide
- Take one’s own life
- A suicide attempt
- A completed suicide
- Person at risk of suicide
- Help prevent suicide.
Avoid phrases like:
- A successful suicide attempt
- An unsuccessful suicide attempt
- Commit suicide (suicide is now decriminalised so use ‘take one's life’, or ‘die by suicide ’instead)
- Suicide victim
- Just a cry for help
- Suicide-prone person
- Stop the spread / epidemic of suicide
- Suicide ‘tourist’.
If you’re worried about someone you've been interviewing, trust your instinct – if you’re concerned, you’re probably right.
Ask how the person is feeling and listen to the answer. Let them talk.
However, if you feel out of your depth, you have deadlines to meet and time doesn’t allow you to stay with them, or you think that they may need professional help, try to find them the support they need.
Ask the person you're concerned about to talk to someone they trust and feel will listen – a friend, neighbour, family member, teacher, GP, a doctor or Samaritans.
Samaritans provides confidential emotional support to anyone in crisis, around the clock, every day of the year. Trained volunteers listen, without judgement and without giving advice.
- Avoid explicit or technical details of suicide in reports
Providing details of the mechanism and procedure used to carry out a suicide may lead to the imitation of suicidal behaviour by other people at risk.
For example, reference can be given to an overdose but not reference to the specific type and number of tablets used. Similarly, saying someone "hanged themselves" is better than saying they "hanged themselves using their own school shirt from their bedroom door".
Particular care should be taken in specifying the type and number of tablets used in an overdose and material / method used in hanging and ligatures. In retrospective reporting or reconstructions, actual depiction of means should be avoided, for example showing the drawing of blood in self-harm. Use of a long shot or a cutaway is better.
- Avoid simplistic explanations for suicide
Although a catalyst may appear to be obvious, suicide is never the result of a single factor or event and is likely to have several inter-related causes. Accounts which try to explain a suicide on the basis of a single incident, for example unrequited romantic feelings, should be challenged. Where relevant, news features could be used to provide more detailed analysis of the reasons behind the rise in suicides.
- Avoid brushing over the realities of a suicide
Depiction of suicide in a TV programme may be damaging if it shows a character who has attempted suicide as immediately recovered or if it glosses over the grim reality of suicide. For example, failing to show slow liver failure following a paracetamol overdose.
- Avoid disclosing the contents of any suicide note
This information may sensationalise or romanticise the suicide. It may also provide information which encourages other people to identify with the deceased.
- Discourage the use of permanent memorials
An outpouring of grief and expressions of regret may send unhelpful messages to other distressed and potentially suicidal people.
- Avoid labelling places as suicide ‘hotspots’
Advertising such locations provides detail about methods of suicide and may play a part in drawing more people to that location.
- Don't overemphasise the ‘positive’ results of a person's suicide
A dangerous message from the media is that suicide achieves results; it makes people sorry or it makes people eulogise you. For instance, a soap opera storyline or newspaper coverage where a child's suicide or suicide attempt seems to result in separated parents reconciling or school bullies being publicly shamed may offer an appealing option to a despairing child in similar circumstances.
- Encourage public understanding of the complexity of suicide
People don’t decide to take their own life in response to a single event, however painful that event may be, and social conditions alone cannot explain suicide either. The reasons an individual takes their own life are manifold, and suicide should not be portrayed as the inevitable outcome of serious personal problems. Discussing the risk factors encourages a better understanding of suicide as part of a much wider issue and challenge for society.
- Expose the common myths about suicide
There is an opportunity to educate the public by challenging these common myths.
- Consider the timing
The coincidental deaths by suicide of two or more people make the story more topical and newsworthy, but additional care is required in the reporting of ‘another suicide, just days after…’, which might imply a connection.
- Don’t romanticise suicide or make events surrounding it sound melodramatic
Wanting your readers and audience to identify with the person that has died or the event is natural but reporting which overly highlights community expressions of grief may suggest the local community is honouring the suicidal behaviour of the deceased person, rather than mourning their death. Reporting suicide as a tragic waste and an avoidable loss is more beneficial in preventing further deaths.
- Include details of further sources of information and advice
Listing appropriate sources of local and national help or support at the end of an article or a programme shows the person who might be feeling suicidal that they are not alone and that they have the opportunity to make positive choices.
Samaritans is available for anyone in any type of distress - we receive calls about loneliness and isolation, relationship and family problems, bereavement, financial worries, job-related stress, redundancy, bullying and exam stress as well as calls from people feeling suicidal.
Samaritans’ Press Office can offer advice about depiction and can help put you in contact with acknowledged experts on suicide (contact details below).
- Remember the effect on survivors of suicide – either those who have attempted it or who have been bereaved
It might be helpful to be able to offer interviewees some form of support such as information about Samaritans, or for those who are bereaved by suicide, information about The Compassionate Friends, Cruse or Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide.
- Look after yourself
Reporting suicide can be very distressing in itself, especially if the subject touches something in your own experience. Talk it over with colleagues, friends, family or Samaritans.
- Media Guidelines from Samaritans
- New Media and suicide
- Working with the bereaved
- Photo selection and placement
How Samaritans can help
Samaritans’ Press Office is available 24 hours a day for consultation on any media enquiry or sources of support:
During working hours: +44 (0)20 8394 8300
Out of hours contact: +44 (0)7943 809162
In 2006 Samaritans worked with the Press Complaints Commission to address the factual reporting of suicide - find out more about the PCC ruling.