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Responding to unethical social media suicide reports

When it comes to suicide, there are usually more questions than answers.
When it comes to suicide, there are usually more questions than answers. Source: Pexels

Talking about suicide has traditionally been thought to encourage suicide, but specialists believe this is a pain point that needs to be addressed.

Throughout the past, journalists have struggled with how to raise a sensitive and important issue in society without causing harm. Journalists' skills and mechanisms for coping with their own emotions before and after delivering a sensitive issue to a public is also a topic for discussion.

Ways of coping

Psychologist Helena Talihärm said that there are many myths regarding suicide that need to be eliminated, and that focused, considered coverage is therefore highly important. She said that writers should always point out where one can get help, how to support others, what to whatch out for and how to listen.

"It would be really helpful if we could read in the press how the publicity helped people become aware, to notice signs and seek timely help," she proposed.

Halliki Harro-Loit, a journalism professor at the University of Tartu's institute of social sciences, said that suicides are not covered in detail often due to privacy issues, such as the need to respect the feelings of loved ones and the risk of imitation. She also said that mental health should be discussed much more in-depth today than it is.

"If a person goes to the hospital and is not taken seriously, or if a bullying incidence is not taken seriously by a school, the press must not remain silent but must do a thorough inquiry," Harro-Loit said. She stressed that when mistakes are made in the profession that have major repercussions, a system for exposing and being incisively critical of failure to disclose them must be in place. The press should also investigate where and why bottlenecks in support and assistance develop.

Suggestions for writers

Talihärm said that it is important not to give specific details regarding the location, time or method of suicide. It should not be romanticized or turned into a tearjerker. For example, you could avoid saying farewell and especially avoid visualizing the topic with actual photographs. She said that media should disclose the contact information for any organizations providing assistance in their coverage.

Õhtuleht journalist Kadri Kuulpak said that suicide stories should not be written to tell the story of someone's great survival or tragedy. "They must not be published for the sake of sensationalism but for the sake of doing something better."

Kuulpak also highlighted recommendations for journalists to follow from the World Health Organization (WHO) and Peaasi.ee.

Talihärm said that talking about suicide is and will remain a difficult topic. The subject is intertwined with other complicated topics such as death, loss and grief. She said that family members should always be asked if they are willing to share the story with the media. "I think they should also be made aware of what will happen once it is public; for example, if the comment box is open whether it makes sense for them to go read the comments," she said.

The impact on a journalist

Signe Ivask, a researcher in the sociology of journalism at the Institute of Social Sciences at the University of Tartu, said that journalists are extremely resilient until they are not. She stressed that after the matter has been reported, there would be a certain ease in tension but also a potential breaking point with possibly devastating implications. As examples of this, she cited anxiety attacks, insomnia and trauma that can manifest much later.

Kadri Kuulpak, a journalist who has reported on a number of difficult topics, said that some events have affected her personally. "Or rather, somehow there is a defiance – it even triggers to write more about the subject because it's so painful," Kuulpak said.

In addition to official institutions that may request that a journalist refrain from publishing a story, there is also an internal reaction that often impedes writing, Ivask said. "This self-censorship may be related to the journalist's own feeling that they do not want to report on it at all."

The journalist has the right to withdraw from reporting on any subject. However, Ivask mentioned how she hears more and more that it is increasingly difficult to refuse to write on certain topic for different reasons.

Ivask said that in her research it came out that journalists are too often left to fend for themselves, as too many events happen simultaneously. She explained that the absence of colleagues can be particularly challenging for a journalist: when no one sees what is happening and no one can intervene on behalf of the journalist. This type of loneliness, according to Ivask, can also result in a lack of motivation and a desire to quit one's job or change careers.

Ethical dilemmas in journalism

Harro-Loit said that a person's perspective on ethical choices of others is often limited, due to the influence of their own experiences. So when discussing such topics, various viewpoints can emerge and each case should be considered, the professor said.

Kuulpak said that there are a lot of such discussions in her editorial office when a difficult question arises, or a colleague is stuck somewhere and feels emotionally hurt.

Years ago, journalist Ivask reported on suicide and recalls now receiving editorial office instructions on focus and interviewees, but no discussion on boundaries and considerations. She said she worked under time limits and relied on her conscience, "but I think a journalist needs guidelines or a mentor."

Harro-Loit highlighted the need to add a section to the Estonian Code of Journalistic Ethics. "How a journalist should behave or remain ethical when social media has already reported an event in a way that professional journalism does not deem ethical is a problem," she said.

In light of changing ways of working in journalism field and frequent interaction with social media, Ivask suggested reviewing the code of ethics to better protect journalists.

The article was written for the University of Tartu course "Practical cross-media project: Radio, web, social media." The authors are Angelina Lon, Egeli Raudmäe, Mihkel Uiboleht and Merili Mihkelsaar.


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Editor: Sandra Saar, Kristina Kersa

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