Suicide is the leading cause of unnatural death in Spain. According to data from the National Statistics Institute (INE), 3,539 people took their own lives in 2018, twice as many as died in traffic accidents. A social problem that journalists have traditionally chosen to omit from their news, complying with their media’s style books and decalogues, which argued that the dissemination of news about suicide could provoke a “call effect“. A criterion that has now been questioned.
The Ministry of Health has issued a report in collaboration with journalists’ organisations – such as FAPE, the Federation of Journalists’ Unions and the network of professional associations of journalists – and health professionals with recommendations for the treatment of suicide by the media. Guidelines aimed at breaking the information silence on this -still taboo- issue in order to inform citizens about available resources that help to meet prevention objectives.
El País, El Mundo and RTVE recommended reporting on suicides when they involved celebrities or were of general interest.
Until now, style books such as those of El País and El Mundo recommended reporting on suicides when they involved people of relevance or were of general interest. RTVE’s style guide – the most extensive and detailed on this issue – adds that they should be avoided both in news and fiction programmes, and even more so “when the protagonists are children or adolescents”.
The government now urges journalists to communicate responsibly on this issue in order to achieve the so-called Papageno effect, a preventive effect on suicidal behaviour. Professor and head of the Suicide Research and Mental Health Promotion unit at the Medical University of Vienna, Thomas Niederkrotenthaler, argues that “the impact of suicide reporting cannot be limited to harmful effects, as coverage of positive coping in adverse circumstances can have protective effects“.
The suicide communication manual recommends journalists to “raise awareness and improve information to the general public through awareness-raising actions promoted by public institutions, media and social entities dedicated to the cause“, “combat myths in order to eliminate misconceptions about suicide“, “have first-person testimonies from people who have been through this situation in order to raise awareness of this problem more effectively” or “offer all the service information and mechanisms to prevent suicide“.
What not to do
On the contrary, it advises not to use the term “suicide” in the headline, nor to specify the method or place; not to publish photographs or videos of the deceased, the method used or suicide notes; to avoid placing the news item in a prominent space; not to glorify the person who has committed suicide; not to present death by suicide as something normal or to avoid identifying it as a “mental health problem as the only direct cause of the person’s behaviour in order to avoid double stigmatisation“.
The document recommends avoiding terms such as “successful suicide attempt“, “failed suicide attempt“, “suicide-prone person” and opting for expressions such as “suicide attempt“, “taking one’s own life“, “death by suicide” or “person at risk of suicide“. Furthermore, in cases of gender-based violence, it proposes to speak of “homicide” when the alleged perpetrator has taken his or her own life.