Like his father and brother before him, Rene Rivkin killed himself. A brilliant, complex and troubled man, this sad end to an outrageous life was predictably notarised thus: “At this stage, there appears to be no suspicious circumstances…” We recognise this as the official euphemism for suicide and, like most euphemisms, it’s coldly removed from the thing it describes.
The press has long made euphemisms about suicide, but on the 2nd August the Australian Press Council released its first comprehensive guidelines on reporting suicide and The Age hoped that “such euphemisms would fade away.” The paper went on: “the taboo against reporting suicide has been lifted… today by the Australian Press Council.” If only it were that simple.
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Question: which claims more Australian lives each year, vehicle accidents or suicide? The most recent suicide statistics we have are for 2009 when 1,633 males and 499 females took their own lives. A total of 2,132. Road fatalities for 2009 were 1,507. Go back a decade and you’ll see a similar relationship between the figures. You’ll also see, in each category of death, a startlingly higher representation of men.
My own highly unscientific inquiries into assumptions about the occurrence of suicide yields the same thing: people are largely ignorant about the extent of suicide. Why? A considerable disparity in reportage—coverage of road accidents far eclipses that of suicide. More, the graphic images which feature on the news bulletin or splashed across front pages are grimly memorable—a family car wrapped around a power pole, the charred frame of a motorcycle. The quantity and the quality of media coverage on this issue has, I’ve suspected, fuelled a public repulsion disproportionate to the size of the problem. Politicians then defer to this pique, reflect it in their language, craft committees and campaigns, and divert public resources from other problems with smaller profiles. At the risk of sounding bloodless, tragedy is not necessarily a crisis.
Except, it’s not that simple. Until now journalists have been restricted in how and when they report suicide. As a rule, suicide is reported shallowly, if at all. This isn’t callous indifference. Psychological studies have long pointed to the substantial risks of “copycat” suicides. Journalists and mental health professionals have justifiably feared suicidal people finding legitimacy or encouragement in reports. It’s meant that journalists have come to fear the power of their own reporting—who wants to feel responsible for somebody’s death?
The substance of the APC’s guidelines are nothing new. They reflect the need for a careful balance between unwitting encouragement and public education and stress the important distinction between general and specific reportage. Debates about such guidelines have always been defined by this balance. In 2008 the World Health Organisation released a report called “Preventing Suicide: A Resource for the Media.” A section of it reads:
On one hand, vulnerable individuals may be influenced to engage imitative behaviours by reports of suicide, particularly if the coverage is extensive, prominent, sensationalist, and/or explicitly describes the method of suicide. On the other hand, responsible reporting may serve to educate the public about suicide, and may encourage those at risk to seek help.
In 1999 a report co-operatively written by industry and government was released to assist the Australian media report on suicide. Called “Achieving the Balance,” the titular balance was exactly the balance described by the WHO nine years later. It is now up to the discretion of editors and news chiefs to interpret these guidelines sensibly. According to this research, there’s no reason to think they won’t be.