Best practice suicide reporting tips

There are many ways for journalists to produce sensitive coverage on the issue of suicide.

Reporting on suicide and the inquests that follow can be difficult for a news organisation. As journalists we must report the story sensitively while still ensuring that the public are kept informed.
Jonathan Grun
Editor, The Press Association

In the first instance, journalists may find the following reporting tips helpful:

Do's and don'ts

1. Think about the impact of the coverage on your audience

Your story might have an effect on vulnerable individuals or people connected to the person who has died.

Providing information on how to contact appropriate local and national sources of support can encourage people experiencing emotional problems or suicidal thoughts to seek help.

It can save lives.

2. Exercise caution when referring to the methods and context of a suicide

Details of suicide methods have been shown to prompt vulnerable individuals to imitate suicidal behaviour.

With this in mind, Samaritans recommends:

  • Avoid giving too much detail.

    Care should be taken when giving any detail of a suicide method. While saying someone hanged themselves or took an overdose is acceptable, detail about the type of ligature or type and quantity of tablets used is not.

    Avoid any mention of the method in headlines as this inadvertently promotes and perpetuates common methods of suicide.
  • Take extra care when reporting the facts of cases where an unusual or previously unknown method has been used.

    Incidences of people using unusual or new methods of suicide have been known to increase rapidly after being reported widely.

    Reporting may also drive people to the internet to search for more information about these methods.
  • Remember that there is a risk of imitational behaviour due to ‘over-identification’.

    Vulnerable individuals may identify with a person who has died, or with the circumstances in which a person took their own life.

    For example, combining references to life circumstances, say a debt problem or job loss, and descriptions of an easy-to-imitate suicide method in the same report, could put at greater risk people who are vulnerable as a result of financial stress.
  • Never say a method is quick, easy, painless or certain to result in death. Try to avoid portraying anything that is immediate or easy to imitate – especially where the ingredients or tools involved are readily available.

3. Avoid over-simplification

Approximately 90 per cent of people who die by suicide have a diagnosed or undiagnosed mental health problem at the time of death.

  • Over-simplification of the causes or perceived ‘triggers’ for a suicide can be misleading and is unlikely to reflect accurately the complexity of suicide.

    For example, avoid the suggestion that a single incident, such as loss of a job, relationship breakdown or bereavement, was the cause.
  • It is important not to brush over the complex realities of suicide and its devastating impact on those left behind.

4. Steer away from melodramatic depictions of suicide or its aftermath

  • Be wary of over-emphasising community expressions of grief.

    Doing so may suggest that people are honouring the suicidal behaviour rather than mourning a death.

    Reporting suicide as a tragic waste and an avoidable loss is more beneficial in preventing further deaths.
  • A sensitive piece that explores the emotional devastation of a suicide on family and friends may prompt people with suicidal thoughts to reconsider or to seek help.

5. Aim for sensitive, nonsensationalising coverage

  • Don’t label locations as ‘hot spots’ or refer to a possible rise in suicides in a particular place or among a specific group as an ‘epidemic’.

    Two or more people taking their own lives who, for example, share a similar background or live in a similar geographic area may be coincidence.

    Avoid implying a connection where there may be none.
  • Be careful not to promote the idea that suicide achieves results.

    For example, that, as a result of someone taking their own life, a bully was exposed or made to apologise.
  • When writing headlines think carefully about content and potential impact.

    Consider if the headline over-dramatises the story, details the method or uses sensationalist terms.
  • Check that inappropriate language has not been used, such as referring to a death as someone having ‘committed suicide’.

    Try an alternative such as ‘died by suicide’.
  • Avoid reporting the contents of a suicide note.

6. Consider carefully the placement and illustration of reports

  • Some suicides attract intense media scrutiny. However, where possible, refrain from positioning a story too prominently, for example on a front page or as a lead bulletin, as this may unduly influence vulnerable people.
  • Take extra care with the selection and placement of imagery linked to a report about suicide.

    For example, question if a large or prominently placed picture of the person who has died is necessary.
  • Try to avoid repeated use of images of a deceased person, for example in online galleries.

    Also avoid recurring use of images of someone who has died previously, to illustrate subsequent stories about them or someone else.

    This is extremely distressing for bereaved families.
  • Avoid dramatic or emotional images and footage, such as a person standing on a ledge.

    Try not to illustrate a report with specific locations, such as a bridge or cliff, especially if this is a place where people frequently take their own lives.

7. Educate and inform

  • Whenever possible, try to refer to the wider issues associated with suicide, such as risk factors like alcohol misuse, mental health problems and deprivation.

    Also consider the lifelong impact that a suicide can have on those bereaved by a suicide. Discussion of such issues can encourage a better understanding of the topic.
  • If possible, include references to suicide being preventable, and to sources of support such as Samaritans.