Ethical reporting of suicide

FriendsSpirit Moves is a discussion programme on RTÉ Radio which explores ethical issues that arise from current news events. It is broadcast on RTÉ Radio 1 on Sunday evenings at 6:00pm; it is re-broadcast on RTÉ Choice (one of RTÉ’s Digital Radio Stations) on Monday afternoons at 4:00pm; and episodes -including this – are available to stream here. This evening’s programme discussed the ethical and legal issues that arise in the context of reporting suicide. The host was Tom McGurk, and the participants included Colum Kenny, Joan Freeman, Paul Drury, Tom Clonan, and Lisa O’Carroll.

Suicide is a serious and tragic social issue, on which several indefatigable organisations do sterling work. In particular, reporting it has been the subject of a conference (pdf) by the Irish Association of Suicidology, and of a report (pdf) by the National Office of Suicide Prevention. The American Association of Suicidology has developed a set of sensitive guidelines on the reporting of suicide; and Headline (blogged here) is doing something similar in Ireland.

The Press Council has recently published a very interesting Discussion Document (pdf) on the issue. As I’ve previously argued on this blog, the key point is that much of the reason for sensationalist media coverage (that sells papers or delivers audience share) is because we – the general public – buy the papers and listen to or watch the programmes. We can’t just blame the media for sensationalist reporting. If we – as readers, listeners or viewers – weren’t interested in the prurient details, then the media wouldn’t report them. These issues may interest the public, but it doesn’t follow that it is in the public interest to report them. This is especially true where people are thrust unwillingly by tragedy into the limelight. If the Press Council can navigate a clear course on this issue, it will certainly make a very important contribution to the development of appropriate ethical reporting standards in Ireland.