Recommendations for Reporting on Suicide

A two-year collaborative effort between 16 organizations has resulted in Recommendations for Reporting Suicide. In this interview, reprinted from Stress Points, Daniel Reidenberg, Executive Director of Suicide Awareness Voices of Education (SAVE), explains the changes and the challenging process leading to the final recommendations.

Sue Lockett John: What precipitated this collaboration?

Daniel Reidenberg: For several years many organizations working in suicide prevention have been frustrated and concerned about the media reports on suicide. Despite earlier recommendations [released in 2001] media seemed to not pay attention to them, and instead often blatantly did the opposite of safe reporting. In some cases this created a contagion effect leading to an even greater tragedy. In May 2009, The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) held a New Media Summit which brought together representatives from suicide prevention, mental health, online communities, as well as federal officials, to look at the changes in media created by social media. It became clear that the media recommendations needed to be updated, relevant and incorporate new media tools and ideas.

SLJ: What's new about these recommendations?

DR: The format and design is entirely new. It is more modern and contemporary, for example, using a keyboard as opposed to a typewriter ball for a graphic. We also listed the three most important things first and added an "Instead of This..."/"Do This..." section so that those in the news media could see examples of risky vs. safe reporting on suicide. On page 2 we added a section on including messages of hope, current research information, and a section on message boards, bloggers and online reporting. We developed a sidebar that includes the warning signs of suicide and how to help. The entire design was made to be simple and quick for journalists to have the most critical information available to them. This version was done in collaboration with and in partnership with media. I made it a point to have people in the group with media and new media expertise, but we also went to others in the media industry for input as the recommendations were drafted. We listened to what journalists want and need, not just what we want them to know. This collaboration has made a world of difference and led to an entire reorganization and rewriting of the recommendations.

SLJ: What do clinicians need to know about journalistic practices in order to work with reporters and editors?

DR: Clinicians need to know that those working in the media industry are on tight deadlines. They have a story to create and tell and they need to do it in a way that is both factual and compelling. Clinicians need to understand that it isn't that journalists don't care — they do. They are just as human as we are, but they have a job to do and it is based on very different principles of practice than clinical work. Most journalists don't want a lot of information, only enough for their story, so whereas a clinician will "process" and talk extensively in responding to a question, some journalists just need a sound bite. Clinicians need to remember that they use their own language in talking about various diagnostic categories, behaviors, and illnesses that the general public doesn't understand. Reporters need to tell the story in a way general audiences will understand. Clinicians also need to know that journalistic practices are based on a story, not a life. A therapist might work with someone for weeks, months or longer, but a television or radio reporter’s story is often 45 to 90 seconds at most.

SLJ: What challenges and opportunities are posed by social media when communicating about mental illness and suicidal behavior?

DR: The challenges are that social media were not created to deal with suicide, mental illnesses or saving people. Social media messages seem immediate, but aren’t always. For example you may post something on Facebook but a friend might not see it that day, that week or until they log on again. In some cases that could be too late. Social media are also limited to words on a screen, or in the case of Twitter, the number of characters. That doesn't really give users a full way to express all that is happening to them emotionally or cognitively. Yet another challenge is that some connections a user has may not have access or the ability to help them. People are "friended" all the time by people that they don't know. Posting a message to those people is not helpful in that they may not have any idea where you live, let alone how to get you help if you are struggling with thoughts of suicide. On the plus side of things, social networks have amazing potential. They offer connections to people quickly, everywhere, and to people you wouldn't have otherwise known. This social network of people can provide a protective factor allowing you to feel connected and involved in a community. Social media help break down social barriers many feel in talking to others, allowing people to have a voice that they might otherwise not have. Social media also provides a great chance to bring us together for a common cause. This can be, for example, promoting World Suicide Prevention Day through a single event page, or by helping someone directly. When social media is used for causes like suicide prevention, experts in different worlds can come together to find new ways to help people. This is a remarkable advancement for everyone.

SLJ: What else would you like to say about media coverage and suicide prevention?

DR: In my field we often get very upset when journalists do something we don't like. However, the reality is that we need media and, given all of the technology in the world, we need them more now than ever before. Journalists have an amazing, incredible ability to inform, educate, motivate and change people. Media equals influence. That is the challenge for us because too often we miss opportunities, the right people are not involved in the process, and sometimes that results in the wrong messages being shared with the public. When you have someone who can see both sides of the issue (the clinician who is sensitive to the reporter's needs and the reporter who wants to do it right), you can have a powerful piece that can save a life.

For more information on the recommendations, see Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website.