Sat, Sep 15, 2007 - Page 8 News List

The media's obligations in reporting on suicide

By Connie Lin, Chuang Po-chung 林育卉, 莊伯仲

World Suicide Prevention Day fell on Monday. Every year about 1 million people commit suicide worldwide. This figure is far higher than the number of deaths caused by murder, war or natural disaster. As a result, the WHO launched World Suicide Prevention Day to raise public awareness of the issue.

Several prominent Taiwanese committed suicide in 2005, including comedian Ni Min-jan (倪敏然), triggering efforts by the government and civic groups to take a more aggressive suicide-prevention stance. For example, the Department of Health established a Suicide Prevention Center; the Dharma Drum Mountain Foundation under the leadership of Master Sheng Yen (聖嚴法師) has promoted an activity entitled "You don't have to commit suicide"; and the Broadcasting Development Fund (BDF) conducted a long-term study on media coverage of suicide.

The good news is that the annual increase in the suicide rate has fallen significantly, dropping from 23 percent last year to 2.5 percent this year.

The BDF's research between June and November last year showed that the Apple Daily led the nation's other three major Chinese-language newspapers in terms of suicide coverage, with 162 articles and 14 front page stories. Although the Apple Daily has provided the most comprehensive suicide prevention information of all print media outlets, the negative impact of its news coverage outweighs the positive impact on vulnerable people.

Among broadcast media, the most extensive coverage of suicide news came from the Chinese Television Co (CTV) with 53 stories, followed by ERA News with 46.

CTV even featured suicide stories in its headlines on nine occasions.

The study shows that media coverage of suicide is not only often inappropriate, but also often neglects to provide information from experts on suicide prevention.

Media outlets have almost become "accomplices" in promoting suicide.

A few years ago, a group of non-profit organizations invited journalists to sign a document entitled "Media Guidelines for Suicide Reporting."

Unfortunately, some reporters said the pledge infringed on press freedom.

In fact, the WHO long ago established "six don'ts" and "six dos" for suicide reporting, which have been recognized by major international media outlets.

The "six don'ts" are: Don't publish photographs or suicide notes; don't report specific details of the method used; don't give simplistic reasons; don't glorify or sensationalize suicide; don't use religious or cultural stereotypes; and don't play the blame game.

The "six dos" are: Work closely with health authorities in presenting the facts; don't refer to suicide cases as "successful" suicides; present only the who, when and where and put the story on the inside pages; highlight alternatives to suicide; provide information on helplines and community resources; and publicize risk indicators and warning signs.

In addition to urging the media not to encourage more suicide attempts by sensationalizing the subject, the BDF has urged the public to show more consideration for people around them. In this way, we will be able to prevent suicide more often.

We therefore hope that next year on World Suicide Prevention Day Taiwan's record on preventing suicide will be even better.

Connie Lin is chief executive officer of the Broadcasting Development Fund. Chuang Po-chung is an assistant professor of journalism at the Chinese Culture University.

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