Address by Dave O'Connell at public meeting "Suicide and the Press"

Wednesday, 3rd December 2008
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Address by Dave O’Connell, Group Editor of the Connacht Tribune, at the Press Council’s conference on media coverage of suicide in Portlaoise on December 3rd 2008

I’ve been the editor of the Connacht Tribune for the last 18 months and I’ve worked in the newspaper industry for the last 26 years.

But I’m not here to either defend or condemn my profession – I’m just here to offer an insight into the way
we work and approach coverage of suicide. And we’ve all heard the statistic. More people lose their lives through suicide than road accidents in Ireland every year – and yet to the very best of my knowledge, my paper, the Connacht Tribune, has never carried a front page photograph of a suicide victim.

When these deaths are examined at inquest, we rarely publish the name of the deceased, although we may
well report the inquest itself if there are factors other than the simple cause of death revealed.

In other words, if the deceased had sought help and had been turned away, or if they had been bullied or
abused – but still we don’t mention their name.

In a previous life, I was news editor of the Irish Daily Star.

We once published a shocking photograph of a homeless man who was face down in the Grand Canal after
drowning himself. The enduring image was that this man was wearing brand new white runners.
We were attacked from all sides – not least by the Liveline brigade for what seemed like days on end. Many
vowed never to read the Star again, but given that circulation didn’t actually fall, we concluded that they
probably didn’t read the paper in the fi rst place either.

We belatedly defended our position by claiming that we had at least provoked a debate on the airwaves on
the prevalence of suicide in modern Ireland. We only came up with that version of our defence after the event – the truth was that we recognised a photograph that stopped you in your tracks and made you buy the newspaper.

Contrary to popular belief, there’s nothing wrong with a news organisation trying to sell newspapers – yet
it’s frequently thrown at us as though this was the most outrageous thing we could try to do.

But the point about this is; what I’m trying to reconcile for myself, and to be honest have failed to, is this –
why was it okay to publish the photograph of a homeless man who had committed suicide, when – wearing
my hat as editor of the Connacht Tribune – I wouldn’t even mention the name of a person why committed
suicide at their inquest?

I’d love to stand here and tell you that it was down to a sense of social or moral responsibility that I only
acquired after leaving the Star.

The over-riding reason is that we live in the same community as the suicide victim – there was very little
chance of me meeting up with the family of the homeless man in the Canal. This isn’t just limited to coverage of suicide in provincial media; there are a whole range of subjects local newspaper either ignore or tone down because we do not share the ‘luxury’ of a daily newspaper to hit and run.

And yet the same stigma isn’t attached to accident victims – why is that?

What makes the intrusion any less invasive when you lose a family member to a drink driver?
Why do we report inquests without the name of the deceased – and yet when it comes to drink drivers, even those only marginally over the limit, we have no such reservations. We have reported on inquests where the intimate details of the deceased person’s life have been laid bare – and we’ve named them. But not if it’s suicide.

And by effectively ignoring stories of suicides, are we almost complicit in covering up a crisis that claims
more lives each year than the road deaths we never shut up about?

Some may call it cowardice, but I don’t see it like that.

As a regional newspaper, we share the pain of job losses because it directly affects the city we live in; when
someone dies or wins an award or gets a call-up to the county team, chances are someone in the offi ce
knows that individual personally.

Whether we like it or acknowledge it, that colours our approach and our judgement every time.

That’s borne out in statistics too. John Cullen’s research paper, Meanings, Messages and Myths – The
Coverage and Treatment of Suicide in the Irish Print Media, shows that guidelines tended to be ignored in
eighteen per cent of print media output – moreso in national Sunday broadsheets and national tabloids.
Last year a teenage boy took his own life in Galway after posting his intentions on his Bebo page.
It was food and drink to the tabloids but our fi rst reaction – in our Tuesday paper, the Connacht Sentinel –
was to ignore it, out of deference to his family and friends.

A free newspaper in Galway chose to carry the story along with the teen’s photograph and fi nal thoughts on Wednesday, and for good measure the story also appeared in Thursday’s Irish Independent with a much bigger, grainier photograph – under the byline of the reporter who’d done the story for the Galway freesheet.

I’m not throwing stones; we’ve all filed stories to the dailies as local reporters and some of us have willingly
received them when we sat on the news desks of those national papers – so I’m not best place to start taking
the high moral ground.

But now we in the Connacht Tribune had a dilemma; the story was in the public domain, one could argue
that it was in the public interest, and we had chosen to ignore it.

So we did carry the story on the Friday in our Galway City Tribune, but we didn’t use the photograph or the more lurid details and over two-thirds of the story complied precisely with the guidelines suggested by our own peers and Irish experts. We avoided explicit or technical details; we included details of further sources of information, we avoided simplistic explanations for the suicide; we didn’t romanticize or glorify suicide, and we used appropriate language. We did all that, and yet somewhere at the back of your mind I have to be honest and admit that there remains a nagging doubt that – in striving to comply with the guidelines – we failed to report the story; we backed away.

Because here was a shocking and tragic example of a teenager who took his life, another contribution to a
statistic shown in last year’s annual report from National Offi ce for Suicide Prevention which showed Ireland having the fi fth highest rate of youth suicide in Europe.

We all know that, in other contexts, we advocate the human interest story to sell the statistics that otherwise fail to attract public attention – and here we walked away from one.

The twist in the tale came some weeks later when representatives from the boy’s school demanded to speak
to me about our ‘sensationalist’ coverage which had only added to the trauma of his friends and fellow students.

The delegation quickly acknowledged that their problem was not with the Connacht Tribune, but only because I was able to show them precisely what we had written, precisely how we had handled the story.
They just hadn’t differentiated between the stances taken by our papers and our rivals – so we all got tarred with the one brush.

No big deal really, because we frequently deserve the criticism we get, and those who’d asked to meet me
had an emotional involvement that led to an amount of understandable confusion in a time of grief.
And as to the stance we took, I’d do the same thing again because, as I said, we have to live in the community and we must bear that in mind in relation to our coverage of all stories.
Pragmatism rules over ideology once again.

And yet what does it matter how we arrived at our decision once we spare the families of those who take
their own lives any further pain?

One of the reasons frequently cited when advocating responsible reporting of suicide is that it may lead to
copycat suicides. And indeed our own media guidelines point out that six per cent of all suicides here are copycats, and that these can follow news reports or other portrayals of suicide.
Again, these guidelines say that newspaper reports in particular can provoke imitation more than broadcast media, because the affected person can look at, absorb and be infl uenced by the information over and over again. But this is a picture that is changing rapidly, and directly correlates to both the decline in newspaper consumption among young people, and more crucially, to their increased use of the internet.

Take the case I’ve spoken about – this young man told his friends of his intentions through his Bebo page;
that same site is still packed with messages from his friends who write to him as though he isn’t really gone.

There are stringent controls on the media, but almost none at all when it comes to this sort of communication on the internet.

Young people don’t look to newspapers in the same way as we of a previous generation did and do.

They have a parallel system of communication, like a hi-tech bush telegraph and that’s where peer pressure and suggestion is most acute.
That’s not to say we don’t have infl uence – I hope we still do – but the world is changing and a new generation takes its lead from a different medium to ours.

Part of our code of ethics as members of the National Union of Journalists obliges us to ‘do nothing to
intrude into anybody’s private life, grief or distress unless justifi ed by overriding consideration of public
interest’. You’d find it hard to convince the more cynical that this ideal is something a growing number of my colleagues cherish.

It goes without saying that so much of what we do inflicts hurt and pain, because there is collateral damage we can do nothing about.

When we report a court case, we always know at the back of our minds that even the most evil of criminals
has parents who love him or her; when we cover a simple road traffi c court case, we inflict hurt on the perpetrator that may well be out of proportion to the crime.

But if we only reported on stories where nobody got hurt, there’d be a lot of photographs from socials or
dinner dances and very little else. And we’d have long since gone out of business.

But coming back to where I started on all this, we – those of us who work in local and provincial media –
have to live in the region we work. We have to be more sensitive and have a great consciousness of the impact of what we report.

There is a stronger connection between the reader and the paper; a clearer link between the reporter and the subject. There are no layers between you and the reader – if they want to see you and express their views to you, they will do so. And let it be said, not always in the office.

That may not be the most ideological reason for tempering our reporting or our views, but it works.

The statistics show that over four-fi fths of the Irish media act responsibly when it comes to reporting suicide cases, and I’d argue that fi gure is even higher within regional media.

The pity is that – like the case I’ve referred to tonight – this distinction isn’t always appreciated by the general public; that occasionally we are all tarred with the same brush.

All we can do as regional newspapers and indeed regional newspaper editors is uphold our own standards
and respect our own readers as much as possible.

We may miss out on the more sensationalist stories that could have been ours for the telling, but it’s the
small price we pay to remain at the heart of the community in which we live and work.