Replace John Doe with an actual name, and you have a real headline on a real online news portal, reporting a death by suicide.
Although Maltese TV and radio news channels avoid reporting suicide cases, the law that applies to TV and radio does not apply to the online sphere.
Due to the rise of online news portals and the sharing of news on social media, there is an emerging trend where deaths by suicide are occasionally covered online as sudden, untimely deaths, providing little or no information about the incident.
News of this kind generally enjoys significant readership and interaction, leading to the website to achieve its goals in terms of audience engagement.
The Law That Applies to Broadcasting
The regulations that oversee news bulletins and programmes related to current affairs are found in subsidiary legislation.
Subsidiary legislation 350/14 (Requirements as To Standards and Practice Applicable to News Bulletins and Current Affairs Programmes) speaks of important principles, such as the integrity and responsibility of broadcasters and the rights of respect and privacy. On the other hand, subsidiary legislation 350.16 (Requirements as to Standards and Practice applicable to the Coverage of Tragedies in Broadcasting) specifically states that “there should be no mention of suicide except in extraordinary circumstances. It is particularly important to avoid detailed portrayal of suicide when there is some novel aspect which may be copied. Care also needs to be taken over the choice of words to describe the event.”
Just like in other instances of non-compliance with the regulations, a station incurs a charge if there is a lack of adherence to the legislation. Subsequently, the case is presented to the Broadcasting Authority’s Board for a decision, following a hearing involving the station and the Authority’s CEO. If the Authority determines that the station is indeed in violation, a monetary fine is imposed.
It’s a Whole Other World in Writing
The primary law governing what can be written on print media, such as newspapers and magazines, is the Press Act (Chapter 248 of the Laws of Malta), which does not specifically address reporting on suicide.
When it comes to regulating content online and on social media platforms, there are no specific laws. However, this type of content is primarily subject to the general laws and regulations that pertain to online content and media, including the Maltese Constitution, Media and Defamation Laws, and Data Protection Regulations.
Maltese online news agencies seem to have found an in-between: reporting that someone died suddenly, without providing any further details. This is not the same or as explicit as reporting about suicide. But is it ethical? That’s a harder question to answer, especially on a small island, where everyone tends to know everything about everyone.
A Fear of Copycats
There is a real concern, that is even echoed in the Maltese Law, that reporting on suicide leads to a copycat effect. This is commonly known as the Werther Effect: an increase in suicides or suicide attempts following media coverage.
The name comes from a novel written by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in 1774, called “The Sorrows of Young Werther”, in which the main character ends his own life. After the novel was published, young men around Europe found a deep resonance with the pain and alienation felt by the protagonist, and were inspired by him, committing suicide as a result.
This serves to highlight the influence of the portrayal of suicide on vulnerable people and suggests that frequent talk on the subject might make suicide seem common or attractive.
The Problem with Not Talking About It
Despite the real risks posed by the Werther Effect, not reporting suicide has its own consequences. One of them is that people remain unaware of the issue and its associated challenges. This, in turn, hinders efforts to address the subject properly and effectively.
Additionally, silence on suicide can help to keep up the stigma surrounding mental health, discouraging open discussions, and potentially preventing people from seeking help. Another risk is the underreporting of issues that are directly related to suicide, such as the impact of suicide on society and on communities, and the factors within society that might be leading towards the act. In fact, responsible reporting can hold public and private institutions accountable for addressing the elements that contribute to suicide rates.
It would be inaccurate to say that there is no mention of suicide or mental health issued on local stations. We do have information on the subject being broadcast by means of television programmes, podcasts and radio shows that serve to educate about the warning signs preceding suicide, the risk factors involved, and the resources available for those in crisis. What we are discussing here is the coverage of suicide cases after their occurrence.
It’s Not an Easy Job for Journalists
As with all tragedies, journalists must keep in mind issues of vulnerability and bad taste, since such stories generally involve family members and friends in mourning.
The Journal asked Dr Joanna Spiteri, Chief Executive Officer of the Broadcasting Authority, whether journalists are adequately trained to do the above. Her reply is eye-opening.
“The Authority is not aware of any training which is given to journalists. However, there might be internal policies and procedures within newsroom organisations in providing such training.”
Dr Spiteri did not mince her words when it comes to the Broadcasting Authority’s decision to err on the side of caution.
“While the Authority understands that there are two sides on such matter, in that, the right for the public to know versus the ethical considerations when reporting on suicide, however, the Authority opts first for safeguarding public interest. Hence, as the legislation itself implies, one has to opt for ethical considerations in cases of reporting on tragedies, particularly any reporting related to suicide.”
The Take Aways
Both sides of the debate, one supporting open discussion about suicide and the other expressing concern that such discussions may promote further self-inflicted deaths, have valid points to consider, and should be considered seriously by those making decisions about what we consume as viewers, listeners, and readers.
The discrepancy between what is covered on TV and radio and what is acceptable on social media leads us to conclude that it is time to consider the principles guiding decisions on reporting suicide on all available mediums, including online content.
We need to be discussing whether it is acceptable to cover self-inflicted deaths on online news portals without explicitly labelling them as suicide. The rules applied to broadcasting should also hold water for online content.
Secondly, journalists and editors should be adequately trained, and the Broadcasting Authority might do well in considering co-ordinated training across all newsrooms, rather than rely on individual newsrooms (often already under-staffed and struggling with budgets) to organise their own educative initiatives.
Photo: Nationwide Children’s Hospital, USA