Faced with a choice between “sensationalism and being sensitive” when reporting on suicide, the media must make always be guided by what is truly “in the public interest,” Minister of Telecommunication and Tourism Cathy Hughes has said.
Speaking at the opening of a two day Anti-Suicide Workshop for Media Workers, organized by the Guyana Press Association (GPA) with support from the PAHO/WHO, Hughes said while she knew only too well the competitive spirit which exists in the local media, reporters have a responsibility to provide balance.
The workshop is focused on effective reporting techniques for suicide prevention and Hughes stressed that each media worker, regardless of the ownership or politics of the media organisation to which they belong, has the responsibility to not provide the sensational gore that makes it hard for people to get up and face another day.
“You must consider the potential effects of every news report you write on your readership. Consider the image you have the power to create that impacts how the world sees this country. Stop, pause and think for a few minutes… consider the responsibility of being part of the media and remember those four words in the public interest,” Hughes told operatives.
She noted that evidence from around the world shows that limited coverage of suicide incidents has been shown to reduce the number of suicides and consequently, the media is legally prohibited from reporting on the specifics of a suicide case, such as names and methods, in some countries.
“All you can do is report that it took place and the day it took place. Nothing else,” she said.
She implored media workers to “please keep the pictures of smashed up cars, dead bodies lying on roadways or the minute-by-minute accounts of a suicide victim’s last days alive off our front pages. It is about making a choice between sensationalism and being sensitive.”
Hughes’ opinions were echoed by Minister within the Ministry of Public Health Dr Karen Cummings and PAHO/WHO Guyana Representative Dr William Adu-Krow.
Minister Cummings stressed that while some media business models called for sensationalist reporting, journalistic responsibility must never be sacrificed on the altar of sensationalism.
“As a journalist, the most important asset you have is not your sources, it is your reputation. Your credibility must be the hallmark of your work; it must be unquestionable,” she said.
Adu-Krow reminded those gathered that suicide and its prevention operates along a spectrum of ideation, planning, attempt and finally completion. He noted that detailed media reports on cases of suicide completion can lead to increased ideation and easier planning for troubled persons.
President of the GPA Neil Marks, in his presentation, noted that the shortcomings in the media’s reporting of this issue is due to lack of training.
“Often we are blamed for being sensationalist and callous in the way we report on suicide. This is because we need training. Sometimes we do a terrible job because we lack training,” Marks said. He added that the GPA is not interested in having a debate on whether the media should refrain from reporting on suicides or whether there is a right or wrong way to report suicide. “We are interested in our members having an education that will guide them. We are deeply interested in developing a media corps able to report in a responsible way,” he said.