Despite quoting extensively from a suicide note, the New Zealand Herald‘s report on the death by suicide of a man didn’t break press guidelines for reporting on suicide, the New Zealand Media Council ruled.
The Jan. 9 article, “UK man found dead after posting heart-breaking final message on Facebook,” reported on the death of a 20-year-old man a month earlier in the U.K.
A man named Philip Roberts complained over the article, alleging it was “extremely inappropriate and dangerous,” as well as suggesting a cause for the death. He argued the article sensationalized and simplified the matter, and suggested the article could have provided “counterbalance” to the claims in the man’s note. In addition, Roberts pointed to the Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand’s media guidelines.
The Herald defended the reporting, saying it was in the international news, and that the deceased’s family didn’t want the viral social media post to be removed. The Herald pointed to its warnings on the article, information on how to get help and decision to not report how the man died. Further, the Herald told the council that Roberts is the only person who complained over the article.
Along with its ruling, the New Zealand Media Council pointed out that the Herald warned readers about the content of the article, didn’t say how the man died, and included information for getting help. The council did however criticize the newspaper for not engaging with the complainant (Roberts).
The council ruled the story was in the public interest “albeit harrowing,” and found that since the death was abroad, it wasn’t held to New Zealand’s mental health guidelines. The council said it thinks the complainant “interprets the [mental health foundation] guidelines much too rigidly,” and noted the MHF didn’t complain about the article. However, the foundation told iMediaEthics that wasn’t because it thought the article was OK.
The Mental Health Foundation’s CEO Shaun Robinson said in a statement to iMediaEthics that it didn’t complain because of the Christmas holidays. “This was due to an oversight rather than a tacit endorsement of the safety or usefulness of the article,” he said.
“The Foundation considers its guidelines appropriate for reporting of all suicides, even where deaths occur overseas,” Robinson said, adding that the foundation was “disappointed to find its position misrepresented in the Media Council’s proceedings.”
“The Media Council at no point reached out to the Mental Health Foundation to clarify the Foundation’s position,” Robinson said. “The Council’s ruling showed a fundamental lack of understanding of the research regarding suicide reporting and the risks unsafe reporting can create for vulnerable readers. There is clear evidence that reporting of suicide creates risk for people already vulnerable to suicide. This risk increases where reporting is prominent (as in this case), widely shared (as in this case), contains details about the person who died in a way that might cause someone to feel their situation was similar (as in this case) and suggests or references method (there is no mention of method in this article).”
iMediaEthics asked the media council for its response; executive director Mary Major responded: “The Media Council does not enter into correspondence concerning its rulings – they stand for themselves. However, we did not receive a complaint from the Mental Health Foundation about this article (or receive any communication about it.) Neither have they advised us of any error of fact in the ruling.”
The foundation’s Robinson added to iMediaEthics that the article could have “placed at risk” readers and specifically called out reporting on the suicide note “without balancing information to contradict this and offer alternative strategies to cope with distress is unacceptable.”
The foundation calls for news outlets to include information about how to get help and what are the warning signs, he wrote. In addition, news outlets shouldn’t report on the contents of suicide notes, the foundation advises. That said, the foundation also said it doesn’t agree with some of the complainant’s recommendations for reporting on suicide.