The Press Council considered a complaint by Rhonda Hall about an article in the Pakenham Gazette, headed “Devastated Drydens working to prevent suicide” on 17 August (online) and “Walk to keep going” on 19 August 2015 (in print). The article referred to her grandson’s suicide and included details of the problems he had faced, and promoted a local community event, “Out of the Shadows and into the Light”, a “Lifeline event” aiming to “allow people to show their support in preventing suicide and to remember those lost”. The article also featured the host of the event, a woman who had lost a stepson to suicide in the previous year.
The Council’s General Principles 5 and 6 require that publications take reasonable steps to “[a]void intruding on a person’s reasonable expectations of privacy” or “contributing materially to substantial offence [or] distress” – “unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest”. Also, the Council’s Specific Standards on Coverage of Suicide 3 and 4 state that when reporting an individual instance of suicide or the name of a person who has died by suicide, publications must consider whether clear and informed consent has been provided by appropriate relatives or close friends, and whether reporting the death or identity is clearly in the public interest. Specific Standard 8 also requires publications to ensure the contact number for an appropriate support service is included in the material.
The complainant said information reported in the article about her grandson was private and the article had been published without the knowledge or consent of her grandson’s mother and without apparent consideration for how it might impact on family and friends such as the young man’s great-grandfather, who was first made aware of the article upon reading it in the publication.
Mrs Hall also said there had been no attempt to confirm directly with her daughter – the young man’s mother and one of his legal guardians – or with the appropriate authorities, the accuracy of the information reported about the circumstances of his death. She said at the time of the report an investigation into the circumstances was ongoing and a number of factors were still being considered by the Coroner.
The publication said the article was factual. It was based on information provided by the young man’s stepmother, who had consulted with her husband, the young man’s father, who had joint legal guardianship.
The publication said it was unaware of the family circumstances of the young man, other than where his mother lived. It had not consulted his mother about the article because she lived “outside the paper’s circulation area”. It said the article was fair and responsible, not sensationalised and did not seek to blame anyone for the death. Upon being made aware of the complaint, it had offered the complainant a private letter of apology and to publish a letter to the editor. It said further training on reporting suicide had also been provided to staff and a new policy implemented to include a number for assistance on all articles related to suicide.
The Press Council considers that, in relation to General Principle 5, the reporting of the circumstances of the suicide in the degree of detail that was included amounted to an unreasonable intrusion on his mother’s reasonable expectation of privacy. In relation to General Principle 6, the article would have caused substantial distress. Neither aspect was sufficiently justified in the public interest.
The Council’s Specific Standards on Coverage of Suicide 3 and 4 require that each report of suicide must be clearly in the public interest, and that informed consent is obtained prior to publication. Ordinarily, this would require both parents or legal guardians to be contacted. Though the report was said to promote an event broadly aimed at suicide awareness, the majority of the article focused on the circumstances of the suicide. The father was not contacted directly but through his wife, the young man’s step-mother. The publication did not take steps to contact the mother at all, despite there being no apparent obstacle to doing so. The level of detail specifically relating to the suicide and the lack of consultation has understandably contributed to the distress of the young man’s mother, grandmother and other family members. In circumstances of such sensitivity, the publication should have sought confirmation from both parents (who had joint custody) that the story was accurate and agreed to it being published in that degree of detail. Accordingly, the Council considers that Specific Standards on Coverage of Suicide 3 and 4 were breached in these respects.
The Council also notes that the publication acknowledged the absence of the contact number as required under the Specific Standards on Coverage of Suicide 8. The nature of the report warranted the addition of an appropriate contact for crisis support or a source of assistance. Accordingly, this aspect of the complaint is also upheld.
The Council recognises and welcomes the publication’s commitment to avoid future breaches of this kind, in adopting a policy to include an appropriate contact on all future articles relating to suicide and providing specific training for staff on the reporting of suicide.
Relevant Council Standards (not required for publication):
This adjudication applies the following Standard of Practice:
“Publications must take reasonable steps to
5. Avoid intruding on a person’s reasonable expectations of privacy, unless doing so is sufficiently justified in the public interest.”
6. Avoid causing or contributing materially to substantial offence, distress or prejudice, or a substantial risk to health or safety, unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest.”
Specific Standards relating to Coverage of Suicide:
3. “In deciding whether to report an individual instance of suicide, consideration should be given to whether at least one of the following criteria is satisfied:
a) clear and informed consent* has been provided by appropriate relatives or close friends*; or
b) reporting the death as suicide is clearly in the public interest.”
4. “In deciding whether also to report the identity of the person who has died by suicide, account should be taken of whether at least one of the following criteria is satisfied:
a) clear and informed consent has been provided by appropriate relatives or close friends; or
b) identification is clearly in the public interest.”
8. “Published material relating to suicide should be accompanied by information about appropriate 24-hour crisis support services or other sources of assistance with these problems*. The degree of specificity may vary according to the nature of the report and the surrounding circumstances."