The general consensus about mental health and suicide is that it is a rising epidemic, that needs to be treated as soon as possible. Struggling with poor mental health is battle that impacts people all around the world in all its forms, and suicide is a problem that brings sorrow. Even just speaking about it, a sense of melancholy usually waves over anyone who approaches the topic.
With media expanding faster than it ever has before, journalists who report on cases of mental health have not only an obligation, but also a responsibility to make a positive impact and a responsibility to report it with the highest form of ethics and morals. The statistics are shocking already when it comes to how many people are influenced by a poor mental health, but it is when a journalist can investigate something and reveal an awful but realistic truth that a change can be made.
In journalism, there are laws and particular rules set in place to protect certain people that match the ethics that would need to be followed when curating a piece for publication. The General Principles for journalists given by the Australian Press Council (APC) apply to all types of journalism, and they have also made explicit principles for ‘suicide reporting’ which also covers mental health issues.
One of the principles is the obligation to respect a person’s right to privacy and only reporting what is deemed honest and fair towards the person’s involved in your story. The General Principles are made to ensure that journalists do not intrude the privacy of anyone involved in the story, and that any report is made only based on what the interviewee discloses. Usually an interview is made to support the story and give it depth and an insight that cannot be told through a simple recount – so it is only fair to use the words to back the story, and not exploit both the stories sensitive topic, the people involved or even the potentially affected readers.
In an example of an article published by ABC News, reporter Paul Kennedy uses an interview conducted by a mother of a teenager who took his own life due to bullying through social media, which is a rising epidemic due to the rise of technology and vulnerability of the teenager’s age. Kennedy is careful in using quotes that support the information that he is trying to get across – parents need to take caution on their online activity. The quotes are emotionally connotated and used to provoke a response of compassion in its readers, which is not exploiting and is only made for an attempt at a public benefit.
Another is to report in the interest of the public. The publication that the journalist is working for should instil the importance of extra caution to potential people who could be affected. The APC have recommended this judgement to be based on age and mental health of its readers. Articles about mental health and suicide can create a better public understanding of causes and warning signs and have a deterrent effect on people contemplating suicide, if they are curated with caution and are in the best interest of helping people. In the ABC News article, it is clearly emotion driven and not created for entertainment or general news – it is rather a high impact and research-driven story that is for a generalised audience. It also covers multiple perspectives – the view of a struggling youth with poor mental health and the view of a now struggling mother with the loss of her son to suicide. It also shows the extensive attempt to try and make a positive impact on something that is difficult in human nature, which is seen as a good thing to readers.
To start reporting on a topic this is quite sensitive, the journalist needs to seek consent, to only do it in the best interest of the people and not publish the story if people involved or authorities ask to withhold the article from the public domain. For example, the ABC News article has contact information for organisations who specialise in helping people with poor mental health or suicide issues and only interviews people who are close to the story and are an active part of the story’s present and future.
Reporting requires a responsibility and balance – any articles made should not glorify suicide or mental illness, but rather aim to try and make a positive change on the readers. Journalists should look towards the public benefit that can be made with their words when writing and carefully curate what they are trying to say. It also needs to be conducted with sensibility and moderation – the audience to whatever the journalist is reporting needs to be able to comprehend or understand the possibly sensitive topic that is suicide and poor mental health. This would mean a carefully chosen lead and title, no explicit or images that may offend, but rather an article that not only respects the topic, but the people who will be influenced by the journalist’s words.
Journalists can sometimes struggle to be able to find what to say when it comes to reporting on the epidemic – which is where it starts wrong. The story is not in the problem, but in the solution. Causes and organisations are trying their best to attempt to find a positive change and impact on the rising amount of people influenced by poor mental health. If journalists can investigate the possibilities of a change and hope, then the impact of what the story is, and the report can have a positive impact on the audience to the media.