Reporting & portrayal of suicide

Media / Reporting & portrayal of suicide

Journalists have an important role in shaping social attitudes to, and perceptions of, suicide. 

Research demonstrates that certain kinds of suicide reporting can increase suicidal behaviour in vulnerable people.

The likelihood of vulnerable people being affected increases when media coverage is prominent, includes details about possible causes of suicide that simplify a complex issue, profiles individuals in a way that vulnerable people might relate to, includes method and/or location and doesn’t include help-seeking information.

Although the Coroner’s Act has been amended, New Zealand’s suicide reporting guidelines, developed in partnership with media, are still relevant and easily accessible. The resource uses a simple “traffic light” approach to talking about suicide in a way that helps to report facts and think about consequences without endangering the lives of others or misleading people through inappropriate blame or over-simplification. For more information about the impact the Coroner’s Amendment Act has on the guidelines, see the Ministry of Health’s website.

The Mental Health Foundation’s communications team works with media to ensure that stories about suicide increase understanding, not risk.

Contact

Sophia Graham
Marketing & Communications Manager
09 623 4810
021 740 454
sophia.graham@mentalhealth.org.nz

The law and suicide reporting

To help protect vulnerable people there are some restrictions in New Zealand on what can be made public about a suicide or suspected suicide. These are set out in Section 71 of the Coroners Act 2006. The Act was amended in 2016 to clarify the restrictions.

Unless you have an exemption from the chief coroner, you can’t make public:

  • the method or suspected method of the death
  • any detail (like the place of death) that might suggest the method or suspected method of the death
  • a description of the death as a suicide before the coroner has released their findings and stated the death was a suicide (although the death can be described as a suspected suicide before then).


‘Making public’ doesn’t just mean news reports and other media – it includes things like public posts on Facebook too. Individuals and media may apply to the chief coroner for an exemption to these restrictions.  

Please note: if a death occurred before 22 July 2016, only the person’s name and age is allowed to be published before the coroner releases their finding. If a coroner finds the person did take their own life, only the person’s name, address, occupation and that their death was a suicide may be published.

Sometimes, the coroner will release more information if it’s in the public interest.

For more about making information about a suicide public, see Coronial Services of New Zealand


When reporting on suicide or related issues:

  • Consider the newsworthiness of individual deaths, especially when the person who has died by suicide is a young person. 
  • Ensure your story has a suicide prevention angle. Will your audience know how to help themselves or their loved ones after reading your story? Consider discussing common warning signs, myths about suicide and ways to get help for yourself or others. All this information and more can be found on the suicide prevention section on this website – please contact us for more information and advice. 
  • Do not report the method(s) individuals or groups use to take their lives (or the methods used in suicide attempts). Do not report location if it suggests method. Research has demonstrated that when vulnerable people hear about a method of suicide, they can then form the intention to use that method to take their own lives. 
  • Bear in mind that suicide is a complex issue, there is no single pathway that leads to someone taking their own life. Don’t simplify the causes of individual suicides. When attempts are made to find a single cause (e.g. “she was bullied,” or “he had just lost his job”), vulnerable people may feel that suicide is a reasonable or proportionate response to similar circumstances in their own lives. People in this position may then think “if it didn’t get better for them, it won’t get better for me” and can then become actively suicidal. 
  • Reduce the prominence of coverage (do not put it on the front page, on a website splash or as the leading item of a news bulletin), and do not use “suicide” in the headline – research suggests that vulnerable people sometimes actively seek out suicide coverage.
  • Always include help-seeking information,eg, a list of helplines so those who need support can access it 
  • Be respectful of bereaved families and friends. Keep in mind that people bereaved by suicide are at risk of suicide themselves and are in a particularly vulnerable situation. For more support see the Samaritans’ (UK) guide to working with bereaved families after a suicide.
  • Be mindful when accessing tributes or comments from social media – even when publicly available, they are not media releases and journalists should seek permission from individuals before publishing remarks made by grieving and vulnerable people. 
  • When reporting on suicide on websites and social media, carefully moderate comments or close down comment sections if possible. Some individuals troll stories about suicide and post inappropriate or offensive content. Members of the public are often not aware of the dangers of discussing method etc. and can inadvertently make comments that put people at risk. 
  • Double check facts and stats before reporting them – sometimes claims are made that certain groups are more likely to die by suicide than others, and this is not always the case. This can create a false impression of a worsening crisis and cause people to feel panicked, helpless and hopeless. Contact the Ministry of Health for official statistics, and the Coronial Services for provisional statistics.

Language matters

  • While you may describe a death as a suspected suicide, do not describe a death as a suicide until before the coroner has released their findings and stated the death was a suicide, unless you have received an exemption from the chief coroner.
  • Do not present suicide as a desired outcome by describing it as “successful” or "unsuccessful”. Refrain from suggesting or implying that a death is a relief, that a person is finally “at peace” or that their death was quick or painless. This language can suggest to vulnerable people that suicide is a viable solution to the very real pain and distress they are experiencing. 
  • Avoid saying someone “committed” suicide – this associates suicide with a crime or sin. Instead, use language such as “died by suicide,” “took his own life,” etc. 
  • Avoid sensationalising suicide with expressions such as ‘suicide epidemic’ or ‘outbreak’. Stick to less emotive descriptions such as “higher rates” or “concerning rates”.

Social media tips

  • Our tips on language used to describe suicide apply to social media as well. On Facebook posts or Twitter feeds language short-cuts are the currency, but it’s still important to remember the ‘people first’ rule and avoid stigmatising descriptions of people who have attempted or died by suicide. Don’t glamorise or sensationalise suicide.
  • Be respectful too of what people who are suicidal or bereaved by suicide may post on social media. It can be a source of affirmation, connection and support for many.