Working together with the Samaritan’s Media Advisory Service to monitor local media reporting of suicides and provide training local media organisations to develop postvention reporting as a means of prevention. This case study was done jointly with the National Suicide Prevention Alliance and forms part of our suicide prevention resource.
As part of our suicide prevention strategy, we monitor and respond to reporting on local suicide in the media in partnership with the Samaritans’ Media Advisory Service. We are working to influence how journalists, editors and media outlets can report on suicide responsibly, through training and advice, bearing in mind its impact on bereaved families and friends, and as a trigger to at-risk individuals.
Our operational suicide prevention work in Oxfordshire includes real time surveillance to help identify risk factors and trends locally and provide appropriate postvention support. We also attend inquests, which are often attended by press, as they are public meetings. In the past, some of the press reporting was intrusive and harmful to the bereaved families and friends (for example, highlighting methods and naming people who worked with the deceased individual). As part of our real-time surveillance work, we note whether there is press coverage of specific deaths, so we knew the level of coverage in our local area and identified that there was an opportunity to upskill local journalists.
From our work and attending inquests we have often noticed that family and friends of the deceased are very concerned about media attendance and whether any strangers in attendance are press. There is clearly a significant impact for the family and friends around personal information being insensitively reported. There is a wider risk of inappropriate media reporting of suicide with research showing that it may also lead to ‘imitative behaviour’.
As a starting point, in specific cases (for example the deaths of young people by suicide) we asked the coroner to urge the media in attendance to follow the Samaritans Media Guidelines.
It had not been possible to monitor the media activity related to local suicides within our team so we reached out to the Samaritans media team and discovered they provide a monitoring service, support, and offer training to media outlets. We decided to fund them to provide this service in Oxfordshire.
The coroner’s office sends our public health team a monthly list of upcoming inquests of potential suicides and we ensure, where possible, that we attend. We share the lists with the Samaritans media advisory team and ask them to monitor media around those inquests and dates. At the end of each month they share with us the number of media reports there have been and where they have made an intervention. This gives us a vital insight into the sensitivity of reporting and highlights where training may be required. At present this work is mainly reactive, although we can sometimes predict which cases the media may be interested in (for example a death by suicide in a public location, or those of a young person).
We arranged for a member of the media advisory team at Samaritans to deliver training to BBC Oxford, including online and radio journalists as well as wider media staff. We got in touch with BBC Oxford directly and asked if they would be interested in learning more about sensitive reporting, whilst also thanking them for their supportive work. We used the journalistic contacts of our county council communications team to build on their existing relationship with the various media teams and organisations.
For the training we had 16 BBC Oxford staff who attended the training in January 2020, which was run during their team meeting over a lunch time. It was carried out in an informal ‘in conversation’ style, which elicited a lot of discussion. Some staff disclosed that they had experienced suicidal individuals on call-in shows and wanted to know where to signpost to; others debated whether it was appropriate to report on a suicide in a short sixty second news bulletin; whilst others suggested that having a focused programme to explore suicide in more detail would be advantageous to improve the public’s understanding and to give a voice to those bereaved or with lived experience.
Following the training one of the journalists emailed Samaritans to say that the training was ‘really informed, important and powerful.’ We are hopeful that it will impact their reporting and the Samaritans Media team will continue to monitor that.
Our relationship with the Coroner’s office team and lead Oxfordshire Coroner has been critical, for both our real time surveillance work and as an advocate for us by reminding the media at inquests to report responsibly. The Lead Coroner takes the role to protect the public from further harm very seriously.
Our relationship with Samaritans has also been absolutely vital – the monitoring they undertake saves us a lot of officer time, and their experience and expertise has been hugely helpful in improving press reporting in Oxfordshire.
A key challenge is building relationships with media outlets. Without those relationships, they are just faceless names and it can be difficult to get them on board.
We have found that it is a challenge when a journalist is from an agency or national media, rather than being local and having a connection to the community, as that can potentially affect their reporting style.
There is also the barrier of ensuring that you ensure training is across all levels within a media organisation. We have examples where we have previously contacted a reporter asking them to change terminology and been told that the editor unilaterally made the decision to change the headline. This is a challenge for the reporter and us equally.
We have identified individuals with lived experience who have expressed an interest to support and contribute to our media training. We hope to trial this approach in the future, as well as engaging with student press from the universities within Oxford.
We are also considering delivering training to communication leads from the district councils in the area, Oxfordshire County Council, Thames Valley Police, local NHS Health Trusts, and other comms leads from partners on our multi-agency suicide prevention group.
Advice for other local areas
- Forge positive relationships with the media at the outset so that when you need to request changes, you are familiar to them
- Get the media to understand the rationale behind why it is important to report on suicide sensitively and that postvention can be used as prevention
- This work is all about relationships and one of the key ones is with the coroner and coroner’s office due to their presence in the process
- Don’t underestimate how much time it can take to build relationships and start making a difference
- Talk to Samaritans national Media Advisory team to get their guidance and understand how they may be able to help you with this work
Sally Culmer, Public Health, Oxfordshire County Council