The British press is not known for its ethical standards. In a country of muckrakers eager to get the scoop, boundaries are often distorted in the hungry grab for salacious details. There’s one subject, though, for which this disregard for moral norms does not apply: suicide.
In the US, there is no equivalent code of conduct. In covering the recent death of fashion designer Kate Spade, the American media has once again failed to meet the reporting standards that dictate how the British press reports on suicide. Most egregiously, publications including the New York Times have reported on the method Spade used to kill herself, with some publications even going into specifics. Equivalent British publications, such as The Guardian, contain no such information. And at the bottom of all articles on Spade’s death published by British outlets—as in all UK articles on suicide—there’s a simple line, that isn’t always featured in American articles: The contact details for an organization providing support to those at risk of suicide (in the UK, information is given for the charity organization Samaritans).
These differences aren’t a reflection of a collective bout of British good conscience, but a formal decision made just over a decade ago, when the government press regulatory body at the time, the Press Complaints Commission, formally declared that “When reporting suicide, care should be taken to avoid excessive detail about the method used.” The regulator made this ruling in 2006 after several papers published photographs of a woman jumping off a building to her death, and Samaritans made a convincing case to the PCC that providing visual or written details about the methods of suicide could raise the risk of copycats.
Two years later, the country was rocked by a cluster of teenage suicides in Bridgend, a small county of 132,000 people in Wales. “There are still no official figures but an area that would normally see two or three young suicides in a year saw an estimated 25 in two years,” Carole Cadwalladr wrote in The Guardian in 2009, a year after the height of Bridgend suicide reporting. Much of the press stuck by the letter of the recently passed PCC regulations but ignored their spirit, and the reporting was sensationalist to the point of hysteria. Lars Johansson of Umeå University in Sweden, who researches teenage suicide, told Cadwalladr that it was “the largest teen suicide cluster of modern times,” and that there’s “never been a cluster reported as sensationally, as comprehensively, as widely, or for as long.”
There then followed a wider national conversation about the role of the media in reporting suicide, with academics warning that press reports romanticizing the deceased and providing details on the method of suicide then give rise to further suicides.
The British press’s reporting on suicide is still far from perfect. While organizations such as Samaritans have detailed guidance on how suicide should be discussed, many articles continue to flout their instructions. Nevertheless, when I worked as a reporter in Britain, I knew that I had to be careful about how I reported about suicide. Every journalist was aware of the national history and the effect our words could have.
It may be impossible to quantify exactly which reported details cause what specific harms, but the suicide contagion effect is all too real. As the New York Times reported after Robin Williams’ death, suicide rate in the US increased by 12% following the death of Marilyn Monroe, which was ruled a probable suicide. And the press certainly plays a role: one study found a drop in suicide in Vienna after the press there began adhering to suicide-related reporting guidelines. Meanwhile, following coverage of Kurt Cobain’s suicide, which emphasized messages about mental health treatment, calls to suicide crisis lines increased in Seattle, where Cobain was found dead, but suicide itself did not. It isn’t clear why this particular death was covered alongside a focus on suicide helplines and treatment, though perhaps it was out of concern for the young fans grieving the musician.
No one claims to have an easy cure for suicide risk, but suicide is preventable. Doctors are currently working on how to address this growing health crisis and, reporters too can play their part.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be contacted at 1-800-273-8255 in the US. Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email firstname.lastname@example.org in the UK. Here is a list of crisis lines around the world.