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An open letter to the Editor of the Bristol Post following coverage of student deaths

Again and again I have seen the same problematic coverage surface from your offices

Cameron Scheijde, incoming Co-Editor in Chief for the 2018/19 academic year, has written an open letter to Mike Norton, Editor of Bristol Live (formerly the Bristol Post), criticising their coverage of recent student deaths.

(CW: suicide)

Dear Sir,

I am Cameron Scheijde, writing in my capacity as co-Editor of the University of Bristol’s student newspaper, and as a student. I am writing to complain about the insensitive and sensationalist coverage by Bristol Live of the recent tragic student deaths at our University. I write so that you may take into account the guidelines for reporting on such cases in the future: again and again I have seen the same problematic coverage surface from your offices.

The recent deaths of two students within just as many weeks is tragic and sad, and I appreciate that covering events such as these is difficult. However, the articles you publish continue to fail to adhere to the Samaritans guidelines for the reporting of suicides and appear to sensationalise the deaths in order to get website clicks.
Your articles of 3rd May (“Bristol University engineering student Alex Elsmore dies, believed to have taken his own life”; “Bristol University Physics student Natasha Abrahart, 20, dies ‘suddenly”) and 4th May (“Sudden death of Bristol University student Natasha Abrahart was ‘not suspicious’”) failed to adhere by the Samaritans guidelines in the following ways:

  • “Refrain from positioning the story too prominently”: your stories were positioned on the front page of the website, on your Facebook and Twitter pages. Your story of the 4th May was then again reposted on Twitter on the 7th May, no doubt due to the popularity of the first posting. That article also seemed needless, given the majority of the facts presented in that article had already been determined in the article the day before.
  • "Young people are especially vulnerable to negative suicide coverage. Do not give undue prominence to photographs of a young person who has died”. All of the three articles included photographs of the student that had died, large and prominently featured. Not only is this unacceptable and unnecessary, seeing their face plastered across the Bristol Live website can cause huge trauma for those who knew the victim personally. Given the pertinence of suicide amongst young people, particularly students at Bristol, using the photos of those who have taken their own lives as featured images is unforgivable.
  • “Leave out the technical details about the method of suicide”. Your story of 3rd May detailed method of suicide of the Engineering student, thus breaking arguably one of the most important guidelines in the reporting of these deaths. This is crucially important; “remember that there is a risk of imitative behaviour due to ‘over-identification’. Vulnerable individuals may identify with a person who has died, or with the circumstances in which a person took their own life”.

In a separate and entirely unrelated article of 4th May (“Bristol grandparents to see granddaughter again after '11 years of silence’”), the link to one of the student’s stories, with their name in the headline, is attached as a “read more” tag. This simply emphasises my point that it would appear Bristol Live care more for their clicks than for the genuine wellbeing of students here in Bristol.

In addition to this, at Epigram we make the decision to frame headlines and the body of these stories around the support available to those struggling. Instead of “Bristol University student (name) dies suddenly”, we frame the headline; “University urges students to use support services following student death”. Whilst I appreciate that you include the numbers of support services at the bottom of your articles, I think there’s far more to be done. Similarly, for the privacy of those mourning, we do not publish the names of the victims. I would urge you to consider doing the same.

Finally, I hope that the contents of this letter are read and listened to. Last year, following more insensitive coverage of student deaths, a student named Adele Wills published an open letter in Epigram urging your publication to re-think the way it reports suicide.

I am disappointed that it appears we were ignored.

Yours faithfully,

Cameron Scheijde
co-Editor in Chief, Epigram

Most people who are thinking of taking their own life have shown warning signs beforehand.
These can include becoming depressed, showing sudden changes in behaviour, talking about wanting to die and feelings of hopelessness.  These feelings do improve and can be treated.

If you are concerned about someone, or need help yourself, please contact the Samaritans on 116 123.

Other student support services include:
Young Minds 0808 802 5544
Papyrus 0800 068 41 41
Student Minds

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