Journalists, broadcasters and publishers: please consider this about Robin Williams

Sarah Homewood
By Sarah Homewood | 14 August 2014
Sarah Homewood, AdNews journalist

Three years ago I was on the side of the road when I heard my father had taken his own life. He had depression and a day doesn't go by when I don’t think about him and the disease that in the end took him.

Last night at about 10pm Jack Singleton received a call asking him to talk with Alan Jones and other Macquarie Radio Network broadcasters over the way they were covering the death of Robin Williams. As a board member of R U OK?, there was an assumption that Jack knew the guidelines around how media should cover these incidents.

He didn’t. “Until 10 pm last night I had no idea,” Singleton said. “That’s changed. We now know one of the most important things is not to discuss the way in which people take their lives. The research is very strong on this. It can act as a trigger for copy-cat behaviour.”

This morning Singleton is in Canberra where the ACT Brumbies rugby team will produce a series of videos and kickstart their support for R U OK and its theme for this year around “bringing back real mateship”.

“There’s this sense of disconnectedness despite all the technology, all social media, all the devices and so-on,” Singleton said.

It’s true. Suicide is the number one cause of death for people between people aged 15 to 44. In 2012, deaths by suicide in Australia reached a 10-year high at 2,535. That's 2,535 families mourning the loss of loved ones and the ripple effect is an unknown but significant multiple.

When we look back at the media coverage of Robin Williams death this week, we can see that frequent criticism of the 24-hour news cycle; the constant pressure to be first, rather than right; to hit publish before thinking of the consequences. But as a journalist and bit actor in this relentless news cycle I’ve been a reluctant subscriber to the theory. Until two days ago.

When Australian media got the news filtering through from the US that comedian and actor Robin Williams had passed away, they were quick to jump to a cause of death.

I was watching one breakfast television program on Tuesday as this occurred. The news reader at the time was looking at her smart phone and reading the unconfirmed reports that the actor had committed suicide.

While this report turned out to be true, the thing that pulled me to a screeching halt was the fact that she read out the suspected way in which Williams ended his life.

This turned my stomach for two reasons. Firstly because of what happened to my father and secondly because there are guidelines in Australia for reporting suicide deaths.

Organisations like Mindframe have been established by the Australian government with the objective to encourage responsible, accurate and a sensitive representation of mental illness and suicide in Australian media.

Mindframe has released guidelines based on research regarding the responsible reporting of suicide and they are easily accessible online.

These guidelines state: “To minimise risk, ensure the story does not glamourise suicide or provide specific details about the method or location of death.”

This same TV news channel on Wednesday again ignored these guidelines by doing a live-cross outside the location of the death and outlined to its breakfast audience the confirmed cause of death as well as the way in which it occurred.

It isn't just television to blame. The print media on both sides of the fence are just as guilty. At the time of writing, both major news websites in this country refer to Williams cause of death and while it might be in scientific terms, when you Google the word they use it is extremely clear what they are referring too.

Suicide prevention organisation Lifeline also released a statement asking, IN CAPITAL LETTERS, for media outlets to not report the means of suicide. Why? “Research shows this increases the likelihood of distressed individuals hearing this and “copy-catting”.

While it is the media's job to report the facts, we need to ask ourselves whether it will help those in need. Or will it hurt them? Volumes to Lifeline’s call centre, by the way, have increased 25% on Tuesday and Wednesday this week. Please consider.

Support is available for those who may be distressed by phoning Lifeline 13 11 14; Mensline 1300 789 978; Kids Helpline 1800 551 800.

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