11 Feb 2016

How we report on suicide in New Zealand

11:37 am on 11 February 2016

New Zealand’s suicide reporting laws are among the strictest in the world. Massey University journalism lecturer Dr James Hollings explains why that is and why he thinks that should change.

First up, what can we say and not say about suicide in New Zealand?

Dr James Hollings

Dr James Hollings Photo: Unknown

Effectively, no report of a suspected suicide in New Zealand can mention any detail that may suggest it is a suicide OR suspected suicide. All you can really say is that it is a death, and that the matter has been referred to the Coroner, and the name and other personal details, if available.

Once the Coroner has held an inquest, they may allow publication of details but this is usually weeks or months. Any breach of this is a criminal offence, liable to a fine. I am not aware of any other country in the world where reporting a suicide, or even a suspected suicide, is a criminal offence. 

How come these restrictions were introduced?

The justification was mainly on the basis of overseas studies that were interpreted to mean that if you report suicide, there is a risk of copycat suicides.

So is there a problem with the overseas studies we’ve based our law on?

In my opinion, there is no problem with the studies themselves - they are all, from what I have read, credible, useful research. The problem is with how New Zealand has chosen to interpret them.

I think the findings have been taken out of context (for example by not reporting the effect size of the phenomena they show, and not reporting the qualifications of the researchers themselves about how the findings should be interpreted) and used to justify extraordinarily draconian media restrictions that at least two of the leading overseas researchers do not themselves support.

Wait, what do you mean?

An analogy might be the studies on dietary fat - for years we were told that low fat was better. Now we are realising that this is not always the case - the earlier studies on this did not tell us enough about what kinds of fat, and when, and how used - and that in fact some kinds of fats are vital for a healthy diet. In the same way, the studies on the news media reporting of suicide have only recently started to look at what kinds of reporting are more likely to cause copycat effects.

One important recent study has shown that some kinds of reporting may have a protective effect - i.e. stop people suiciding. So there's a lot of work still to be done, to really understand how and why and in what circumstances news media reporting of suicides is dangerous, and when it is beneficial.

So far, virtually every country in the world except New Zealand has chosen to wait and see how the research develops first, before taking radical action. That in my view seems more sensible.

What about Australia? Surely they’re doing the same thing.

Australia has no statutory restrictions on reporting suicide. It does, however, have a fairly widely accepted set of voluntary guidelines for news media when reporting a suspected suicide. These urge moderation of language, avoidance of sensationalist treatment, and encourage inclusion of information about where to find help for those who are vulnerable.

But I read about celebrity suicides in New Zealand. Can we report those?

Yes. The legal restrictions in New Zealand only apply to NZ suicides. There are no restrictions on those that happen overseas. This seems bizarre, but there is a reason for it - it is that local deaths are likely to have more impact on vulnerable people than those overseas. 

Even so, the risks of copycats from celebrity deaths varies widely depending on countries. It is moderately high in Hong Kong, but very low in Australia, for example. Such studies as have been done have not been able to say why this regional variation exists, though it is quite likely the highly sensationalist treatment of celebrity suicides in Hong Kong (large photos of the deceased lying next to their chosen method of suicide, for example) may be a factor.

Media effects are a complex phenomenon and so far the suicide literature has in my view not shown a very sophisticated understanding of them. It has, until recently, been informed by what used to be called the "hypodermic" media effects model of the early-to-mid 20th century, which is the idea that a phenomenon can have an effect in isolation - e.g. that reporting a 'fact' about a suicide, such as the method, can be a sole trigger for more suicides.

In fact, media effects research has long established that the effect of media violence on children, for example, varies dramatically depending on the context, the individual, their environment, and so on. It seems reasonable that copycat effects resulting from news media reporting of suicide are also likely to be highly contextual.

In other words, you can't say reporting one thing (eg the method) is going to have the same deadly effect in all cases.

Right, so you think we should loosen the reporting restrictions?

Yes. I think all statutory restrictions should be removed. Australia has managed to reduce its suicide rate by almost half in recent years without statutory restrictions. Our North Korean-style censorship law has had no apparent effect on our rates.  However, I do think news media should be encouraged to follow sensible, mutually agreed reporting guidelines that can be updated as research develops and tells us more about what the real risk factors are.

But why should the restrictions be relaxed? What if it’s harmful?

I think we have suffered in this country for the past 25 years from a kind of moral panic about the risks of informed public discussion around suicide. People seem to be terrified that any kind of public discussion is going to cause an avalanche of suicides.

What we've lost over the years, while this subject has been effectively banned, has been the ability to debate in a timely manner individual deaths that raise questions about systemic problems.

For example, did someone die because there was no proper mental health support? Did they go to a hospital emergency service and were turned away? Did they go to a GP but the GP felt they couldn't tell anyone in their family because of the Privacy Act?

From what I have heard, these sorts of problems are happening far too often, but there is less public pressure to fix them because they can't be reported on if they involve mentioning an individual's suicide.  

The effect of the current laws is to protect those who are supposed to be responsible for reducing suicides  - for example our elected representatives, who set funding levels, those officials responsible for ensuring good mental health services are available, community leaders, who need to do more to help the vulnerable, perhaps some parents, and of course the media who should be telling us more about the real causes of our suicide rate, and how we can all help reduce it.

Some of these debates about individual cases would be painful and difficult, certainly. But you only have to look at the way public debates about the causes of individual car accidents have helped reduce our road toll over the years, to see that these are an important part of a healthy, open society.

The implication of the declining suicide rate in Australia, and our stubbornly high one, is that allowing such debates would probably have more impact on reducing suicide rates than our current approach.

Any chance of changing the laws?

The current government has recognised concerns about New Zealand's censorship regime, and last year introduced The Coroner's Amendment Bill. This will loosen, but not entirely abolish, the restrictions on media reporting of suicides in New Zealand. The Bill has had its second reading, but has not yet become law. As it stands, the Bill allows the fact that a death is a suspected suicide to be reported, but not the method or any particulars that might suggest the method (e.g. the place, if it involves jumping, for example).