In March 2016, an Australian woman, Jasmine Riley, died by suicide, killing her two-year-old son with her. The Courier-Mail, a daily tabloid in Brisbane, published a photo of police apparently alongside a body and described how the woman died. Such gratuitous reporting could have given “rise to a risk of further suicides” and crossed the Australian Press Council’s guidelines for reporting on suicide, the council ruled.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, in 2015, suicide was a major cause of death for younger people, stating, “In 2015, suicide was the leading cause of death among all people 15-44 years of age, and the second leading cause of death among those 45-54 years of age.” In Australia, suicide is the “13th leading cause of death.” Suicide is the tenth “leading cause of death in the U.S.” with more than 42,000 Americans dying by suicide each year, iMediaEthics has previously reported.
The Courier-Mail‘s story was headlined “Mother, son found dead beneath cliff at Maroubra.” The reporter quoted from her apparent suicide note, found in her car near the top of the cliff, and suggested a reason for why she died. The newspaper also quoted from online posts about the woman and the significance of the day she died.
The article was originally published by the Courier-Mail‘s sister newspaper the Telegraph and carried Telegraph reporter Ben McClellan’s byline. iMediaEthics contacted McClellan to ask if he was aware of best practices for reporting on suicide and if the ruling will affect how he covers suicide moving forward. Neither McClellann nor Telegraph publisher News Corp. have responded to our e-mails.
iMediaEthics confirmed with a press council spokesperson that it received a complaint about the Courier-Mail‘s publication of the article.
While the Courier-Mail‘s publication prompted the complaint, there currently aren’t any outstanding complaints against the Telegraph or other News Corp. publications that published the same report.
“The Council considers that the details of the method, the precise location, the suicide note and the tribute to the mother being ‘brave’ were likely to cause or contribute materially to substantial offence, distress or prejudice, or a substantial risk to health or safety,” the council explained. Further, the inclusion of all of that information “gave rise to a risk of further suicides.”
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The Courier-Mail minimized its responsibility by pointing out it wasn’t their original report, and that they had “syndicated” the article from another News Corp. publication. The press council ruled that the Courier-Mail still had the same responsibility requirement, regardless of whether the article was written by its staff or not.
The newspaper also tried to deflect criticism by arguing the story was in the public interest. Nonetheless, the Courier-Mail removed some gratuitous information from its headline and story after the press council contacted it, the council said in its ruling.
While the Courier-Mail did edit the article after the council looked into it, the press council ruled the newspaper both broke guidelines in reporting on suicide and published information that could have offended or harmed health or safety.
iMediaEthics contacted Hunter Institute of Mental Health’s Mindframe National Media Initiative and On the Line, two Australian organizations focused on suicide awareness, for comment on the case. We have yet to hear back from them.
Last year, iMediaEthics examined the UK Gravesend Shopper‘s news reports on the inquest into the death of a young woman. The woman’s mother complained to the press regulator and iMediaEthics argued that the story included far too much information that was neither newsworthy nor in the public interest.
In April of last year, we highlighted a sensational and insensitive article in Pennsylvania’s Sharon Herald about a local man’s death. That newspaper’s article serves as a “great example of how not to report a suicide death,” said Ken Norton at that time. Norton is an executive director for the National Alliance for Mental Illness.