Written evidence submitted by PAPYRUS
PAPYRUS, the national UK charity committed to
the prevention of young suicide actively engages media to communicate
suicide prevention messages to many audiences. Working within
recommended guidelines, we view all communication with media as
an opportunity to encourage sensitive reporting.
Since its inception in 1997 the charity has been
concerned about some aspects of media reporting of suicide namely:
the fear of imitative suicides; and
the intolerable intrusion into privacy
which can result from inappropriate reporting of suicide in the
Our concerns are based on:
anecdotal evidence from PAPYRUS members;
academic research and the views of
PAPYRUS press office experience dealing
evidence from other organisations;
the increasing use of the internet
as a media outlet giving world-wide access for a greatly extended
period of time.
These areas of concern were reinforced during
the intense period of media communication during the publicity
given to a number of suicides in the Bridgend area of South Wales
in 2008. As media coverage gathered momentum there were increasing
examples of irresponsible reporting that both sensationalised
and romanticised suicide.
The media strategy put in place by the charity
in the first three weeks following the disclosure included a call
for cessation of media reporting, action by the press office to
inform and educate journalists of the risks associated with inappropriate
reporting and directing them to further guidance from within the
The charity felt morally bound to call for a
cessation of media reporting as there were real fears that further
suicides would ensue. Similar calls were made by South Wales Police
and the Deputy Children's Commissioner for Wales. The phenomenon
of suicidal contagion is well known and PAPYRUS felt that the
cumulative effect of the ever escalating frenzy of reporting by
all mediapress and broadcastcould be counter productive
to the prevention of suicide.
In a review of its experience following this
period of dealing with media, PAPYRUS acknowledged that there
were positive examples of responsible reporting. However:
the "Bridgend" story maintained
prominence day after dayfront page, bold headlines, minute
details of method, photographs of suicide sites;
many newspapers kept the story "alive"
over a period of days, even when there was no "new"
photographs and details of young
men who had died in the preceding months were published over and
often storylines were speculative,
especially regarding a connection between all the suicides and
the word "Bridgend" was
associated with the apparent suicides even though some of the
victims did not live in Bridgend itself; and
further apparent suicides occurred
shortly after a peak of media frenzy, bereaved parents and police
suggesting a direct link between media coverage and these deaths.
In media discussions it was evident that:
some journalists were unaware of
the need to work within established media guidelines as recommended
by the National Suicide Prevention Strategies for England, Scotland
and Northern Ireland;
several journalists said they had
not considered the implications and expressed understanding and
in many media minds the interpretation
of "excessive" detail was miles apart from what the
charity believes is excessive;
there was a lack of understanding
that incessant coverage could contribute to more suicide attempts;
the majority of journalists considered
publication of photographs, method of suicideand indeed
locationessential to the story;
judgement by many journalists was
based on their personal reaction to news, revealing a lack of
understanding that vulnerable young people could become severely
distressed, suicidal even, by reading that another young person
had killed themselves; and
there was a lack of understanding
by many of the importance of including sources of help for vulnerable
readers, or those concerned about them.
In 2006 the Press Complaints Commission Code
of Practice Committee introduced a new sub-clause requiring that
care be taken, when reporting suicide, "to avoid excessive
detail about the method used".
Whilst acknowledging that this was an important move
in the right direction we do not believe it is sufficient. Copycat
suicide does not happen solely as a result of publicising detail
Following the "Bridgend" experience
PAPYRUS met with both the PCC and the Secretary to the Code of
Practice Committee. During these discussions we have called for
the following to be considered and implemented.
1. "reporting suicide"
be an entirely separate and new clause in the Code of Practice
as distinct from Intrusion into grief and shock;
2. the current wording be replaced by: When
reporting suicide care should be taken to avoid any detail that
may contribute to copycat suicide, such as detail of method or
3. this statement be supported by detailed
guidance notes for editors on the reporting of suicideguidance
notes similar to those already in place on reporting mental health
issues (2006); and
4. the word "excessive"
should be removed from the current clause and not incorporated
into any future clause.
We believe that a general statementitem
2 aboveencompasses all the scenarios that may contribute
to copycat suicide. The reference to "detail" in the
statement could be defined/clarified in the guidance notes.
We do not believe it is possible to adjudicate
on what may be considered "excessive" in this context.
For example: what may not be deemed to be "excessive"
in itselffor instance the single word "hanging"can
be considered excessive if it appears in a prominent front page
position, repeatedly over successive days.
We also believe that members of the Code Committee
and PCC would benefit from expert advice when adjudicating on
"excessive" detail. This could take several forms: specific
guidance notes, the availability of expert advice during an adjudication
and/or a training/briefing session for members.
PAPYRUS has brought to the attention of the
Code Committee two new areas of concern; namely a possible greater
incidence of suicide in:
parents who murder their children
before killing themselves.
To date we have only anecdotal evidence, but
PAPYRUS is concerned that these may be further examples of copycat
Our proposed changes to the wording of the Code
would ensure that these issues are covered.
Similarly there has been concern regarding potential
reporting in the UK of the burning of barbecue charcoal as a suicide
method. Reporting in the Far Eastwhere it first occurredresulted
in a massive increase in suicide using this method. Simply mentioning
the method would be giving "excessive" detail in this
PAPYRUS is in the unique position of representing
parents and other family members who have lost a young person
to suicide. Their stories are always tragic, often harrowing.
Time and time again they speak of intrusive media behaviour both
at the time of the death and/or when the inquest took place.
Often, caught off guard, they divulge details which,
further into their bereavement journey, they would not have disclosed.
Sometimes these surface again as journalists report further incidents.
They are bewildered by the fact that their child's photo is publishedno
permission has been sought. The photograph may appear at some
future date attached to another story. Photographs of grieving
parents, for example attending inquests, may compound the grieving
No-one who has not experienced the loss of someone
to suicide can fully understand the repercussions to families
of insensitive reporting.
In principle the Press Complaints Committee's
mission to encourage and educate journalists to report sensitively
is commendable and it is effective to a degree.
However it is unrealistic to believe that self
regulation within the industry alone can achieve the goal we all