Adele Wills writes to the Editor of the Bristol Post following their coverage of student suicides.
Dear editors of the Bristol Post,
I’ve debated with myself whether I should write this, let alone send it to anyone or publish it anywhere. It’s about a topic that gives you a lump in your throat and makes a room fall silent in an instant. It’s something that ripples through the lives of family, then friends, then an entire community, yet we still don’t talk about it and when (or rather if) we do, it’s as though we’ve immediately been sworn to secrecy and promised never to speak of it again. It’s tragic and frightening. It’s suicide.
But what I want to discuss is the issue of suicide in the media.
Given that it’s such a delicate subject, you would expect there to be some form of guidelines for the media when it comes to writing or talking about suicide, so that journalists know how to broach the issue in an effective yet sensitive way. Thankfully, the Samaritans conducted extensive research with experienced editors and journalists to create easy to follow advisory guidelines, freely available online. However, judging by the recent attempts at reporting the student suicides it appears that this is something the Bristol Post has either never heard of, or chooses to ignore. Other media outlets seem perfectly capable of taking care when reporting on suicide, for example the BBC, Guardian, and even the unpaid students who run student publications Epigram and The Tab.
I feel compelled to share this in the wake of the reports on the student deaths at my university, but in fact the Bristol Post’s disregard of suicide coverage guidelines extends to any report of suicide (whether or not a coroner has yet ruled it a suicide) in the Bristol community: the Post writes their distasteful headlines to include unnecessary detail, purely to grab the reader’s morbid curiosity.
I am not bringing this to your attention because a word or turn or phrase has offended me. I am doing this because the media has a responsibility to its readers to report suicide in a sensitive manner, because the nature of the subject can have profound and harmful repercussions on those who are vulnerable. There are many ways in which poor reporting can hurt both the community and individuals, whether they were related to the deceased or not.
One such way the Bristol Post failed to be mindful of suicide coverage guidelines is the sheer amount of detail they include in their articles. There have now been five student deaths, and I know so many things about those students purely from what was written by the Post, including most harmfully, the methods by which they died. I have found similarities between them and myself and my friends due to the Post’s over-identification of them. Why is this unsafe and not just a reporter doing their job? Because of a thing called the Werther Effect.
The Werther Effect is more commonly known as ‘copycat suicides,’ committed by those susceptible to suicide, triggered to hurt themselves as a result of seeing suicide in the media. The Samaritans discourages ‘any mention of the method in headlines as this inadvertently promotes and perpetuates common methods of suicide,’ something not adhered to by our local paper. If you’ve looked at the Bristol Post before you may well have seen articles with headlines that sensationalise the act itself, for example describing someone who has died after falling from a bridge as having ‘jumped’. This language is melodrama, not journalistic reporting, and continues throughout the content of the article. But worst of all, in my opinion, is the use of photographs.
In each article written by the Bristol Post about any of the five student deaths this academic year, we see numerous large pictures of the students. Their faces and smiles are unavoidable, and can even be found on the front page of the website the day the story breaks, as well as any subsequent stories. I’m not sure whose job it is to go around gleaning all these images, but I truly do question the morals of it even if someone’s Facebook account is public. As the Samaritans website advises: ‘Take extra care with the selection and placement of imagery linked to a report about suicide. For example, question if a large or prominently placed picture of the person who has died is necessary. […] Try to avoid repeated use of images of a deceased person.’ You will find that the Bristol Post does the exact opposite of this, even including several images of the unrelated students in a single article – the Post has now even included a gallery of the students’ faces all side-by-side.
Your sketchy behaviour continues out of print: hanging around University halls of residences, attempting to contact students via social media, all in the name of grabbing a quote from grieving students. Mining online condolences pages and Facebook profiles to find pictures and quotes to fill out your articles. Leave us alone. This is a community in mourning, and your presence is not welcome.
There is a piece in the Press Gazette written by Richard Best, called ‘How editors can save lives by taking special care when reporting on suicide,’ which explains in better detail than I can the ins and outs of this subject.
All of this - the pictures, the over-identification of the deceased, the sensationalist language - is particularly hard to deal with if you are a student in our university community. Reports are finding that university students nowadays are struggling with mental health difficulties more than ever before, so can you imagine what it’s like to be one of those students right now, seeing the way the Bristol Post is squeezing these events dry for as many dramatic and tragic articles as they can. These articles have a lasting and damaging effect on us.
While these deaths were not related, they are treated as a cluster as they have occurred within the same community. When a cluster like this happens, it is more important than ever to report responsibly and sensitively, in order to protect those who are vulnerable and prevent negative consequences developing. The student community has been affected all over, and I know that I cannot speak for every student but there are 22,000 of us here and we, and the families of those deceased, deserve respect. There are too many students still struggling.
I am one of those students. I have struggled with suicidal thoughts and feelings before, and I often still do. While I may be relatively stable at the moment, every new story knocks the air straight out of me. Suicide is not something that is easy to move on from, though it is very easy to be thrown back into that dark place in the blink of an eye.
I urge all editors of the Bristol Post to review their reporting guidelines in the interest of the bereaved families and loved ones, and the grieving Bristol student population.
by Adele Wills