A journalist’s view on ethically reporting suicide


That’s all they seem to be in the small country communities. At least until a celebrity kills themselves. Either on purpose or by the amount of drugs they have taken.

There’s a fierce drought in regional Australia. Farmers and business owners get into debt and see no way out but death because of the downturn in economy. Worst of all are the amount of kids in the regional towns that are killing themselves. And their death sets a chain reaction among their friends.

Did you know this?

I have little proof to support my claims about how many of the youth are dying because it is a taboo subject. But the whispers are there in the communities. It frustrates me that I cannot get to these schools and write more about these children who have chosen to do what they do.

But nobody wants to talk. It hurts too much. And suicide has stigma and there is a fear that it is contagious. Evidence suggests there is truth to that.

What I do know for certain is that Beyond Blue released statistics which state suicide was the leading cause of death among Australians between the ages of 15 and 44 in 2012.

Today the RUOK Bus stopped in my city. It is to raise awareness for people to build connections with people suffering depression so nobody is isolated.

As the journalist I had to cover the story. I didn’t want to. Maybe I was tired because of the last few nights chatting to a friend in Japan, maybe it’s because I myself have contemplated suicide in the past (2009, when I was volunteering for the Salvation Army in Melbourne, but I will talk about it another time)  but interviewing social workers made me tense.

I found it hard to get permission to get quotes for suicide in general today even if was to promote RUOK.

“We want to make sure when you interview the organiser of the local suicide prevention program you only stick to talking about a local event,” she said. “We’ve been very careful the last few days about the information we release.”

In other words, please don’t talk about Robin Williams.

I know some of you are rolling your eyes assuming I’m exploiting this week’s topic. Maybe I am. Maybe I’m taking the chance to talk about these things while it is POPULAR and is all people are talking about.

One of my mentors, who coincidentally looks a little like Professor Sean Maguire in Good Will Hunting, had something interesting to say on Facebook yesterday:

“Robin Williams is dead, killed by his own hand. The papers, including social media is full,of tributes and expressions of grief at this tragic event. But it is worth asking where the tragedy lies. Does it lie in the passing of his genius? Is the death of his celebrity status the source of the tragedy? Is his suicide more tragic than the death of a nameless addict in an abandoned Brisbane hovel? I hope not. His death, his life of struggle with depression was a tragedy. To wake in the morning despising the day, regretting your existence does not need celebrity status to qualify as tragedy. Depression is the silent killer of life, mostly but not exclusively of men. And this is a tragedy.”

At the time I disagreed with him. But now I am not so sure.

Good WIll Hunting

Here is a few things I have learned about suicide since becoming a journalist.

Sometimes we victimise the person who killed themselves and forgot their faults. It is like we keep to the old code of redemption in spilling your own blood. Sometimes we fear about saying negative about the person from then on.

This was the status of a controversial Australian comedian several days ago:

“I hear Robin Williams won’t be stealing jokes anymore.”

Does it make you feel indignant to read this? To know that even if Williams was a renowned stand-up joke thief, somebody said a bad word about him?

I make a stronger point.

Once a man in a small Australian town was to go to court to face alleged child porn charges. The week before he is due to appear he kills himself the same way Williams did. He was found in his house.

I won’t go into the worse rumours about this man. Far worse rumours than what the charges were.

All I say is I found it interesting the charges were dropped. You cannot convict a dead man. He never received a fair trial. When I asked the court clerks and the police for more details, they closed down. One of the clerks told me angrily over the phone, “I’d be very careful writing anything about this in the paper if I was you.”

It’s not up to you to tell me what I should be writing, I thought.

“Are you thinking of the poor man’s family?” she said.

Are you thinking of the victim and the victim’s family? 

Of course, a different example from Williams. But one that bears thought while society is mindful of the topic.

In journalist cadet training we were taught ways of how to report on suicide. One thing we were never to do was publish photographs of the tributes left behind of a person who killed themselves. It implants the idea apparently to the vulnerable that if  they die they will have these tributes too.

I see this week that some coverage failed to avoid that rule.

Also, we were told never to say how a person killed themselves. It is why you never read an ethical article this week which specifically says how Williams died or where he was found exactly. You read instead that his death was caused by asphyxiation.

I see this ethical rule was broken too because some outlets wanted to break the story or because they believed it was already common knowledge. And you wonder why the rate of suicide increases when a celebrity dies.

To soften the blow to the vulnerable, and to help them when they feel worse because of the emotional impact our article has, we end it with something like; If you feel you need to talk to someone, then please phone Lifeline Australia on 13 11 14.