The Press Council considered a complaint from Sue-Ellen White about an article published by The Border Mail on 8 May 2020, headed online “Family and friends speak of their grief at the loss of Billy, ‘Buffalo Bill’, White ahead of 2020 Albury-Wodonga Winter Solstice” and in print on page 1 headed “If only love was enough”, leading to an article on page 2 headed "‘I'm empty’: a son's last words to dad: Gaping grief left by suicide”. The article reported on the death of the complainant’s son Bill, who died by suicide, and particularly focused on the grief experienced by Bill’s father who was named. The article also promoted the Albury-Wodonga Winter Solstice, an event convened by Survivors of Suicide and Friends.
The complainant said that the article had been published without her knowledge or consent and said that she should have been informed about the proposed article before it appeared, given that Bill was living with her at the time of his death. She would have liked the article to acknowledge her and Bill’s sister as well as Bill’s father. She said she also would have preferred the article not to be on the front page with a very large photo of Bill, leading into a two-page spread. She said that she lived in a small town and that it was shocking for her and others who had known Bill to be confronted with such a prominent article and photographs. The complainant said that the young woman who had found Bill after he died became distressed on seeing the paper for sale in the newsagent. She said the prominence of the article, coming without any ability to prepare for it, had been as mentally and emotionally debilitating as when she first learned of Bill’s suicide. The complainant said it had a similar distressing effect on Bill’s family and friends. The complainant said she never had an issue with Bill’s father sharing his story and understood the intention behind it.
The complainant said that, despite her contacting the publication to explain the distress the article had caused, the publication did not apologise or show any regret. The complainant said the publication’s communications showed a disregard to her position and added to the distress caused to her and others involved.
The publication said Bill’s father had requested that it write a story from a father’s perspective of the grief left by suicide. The publication said that each year it publishes a series of stories before the Winter Solstice event usually focused on a mother’s grief and this seemed like a good opportunity to present a father's perspective. The publication said it was strongly in the public interest for Bill’s father to share his story and that he did not require the consent of any other party to speak about his own experience of grief and love for his son. The publication said that to have sought the input of anyone else, or the consent for him to share his experience, would have been a betrayal of his trust and may have discouraged Bill’s father from telling his story. The publication said it is committed to reporting on suicide and that it has a mission to “End the Suicide Silence”. The publication said in this and similar situations involving families where the parents do not live together, it is not reasonable to expect journalists to seek permission from multiple family members.
The publication said it was contacted by Bill's sister on the day of publication and it spoke with a medical professional assisting the complainant and offered for the journalist to speak with the complainant and/or Bill’s sister about the story and possible follow-up articles and sources of support. The publication said its further attempts at communicating with the complainant and others were unsuccessful as they did not respond.
The publication said it is regrettable the article caused hurt, but that the tragedy is the suicide itself and not its reporting of it. The publication said it was its responsibility to shine light on the high rates of suicide by men specifically to address the stigma surrounding it, and this was the primary reason for featuring the story on the front page. The publication said that telling men they can't share their stories of grief until they obtain "consent" from their estranged partner is a bad message to send and will undermine its progress of reporting on suicide. The publication said while it believed it had complied with the Council’s standards, it would consider what occurred and be more mindful of the precautions its journalists may need to take in future.
The Council’s Specific Standards on Coverage of Suicide 3 and 4 require that when reporting an individual instance of suicide and reporting the identity of the person who has died by suicide, clear and informed consent must be provided by appropriate relatives or close friends or the report must be clearly in the public interest.
The Council notes that the publication did not take steps to contact the complainant, despite there being no apparent obstacle to doing so. Although the Council acknowledges the article was well-intentioned and had been initiated by Bill’s father, Principles 3 and 4 required, in the circumstances, that consent be sought from both parents. The Council considers it was not sufficient to obtain only the consent of Bill’s father.
The Council recognises there can be substantial public interest in suicide-related coverage, and that an aspect of the article promoted an event broadly aimed at preventing suicide. However, the article predominantly focused on the individual instance of suicide by Bill, and the specific experiences of Bill’s father. Given this focus, the Council considers the public interest did not justify the nature of reporting in the article in the absence of consent from both parents. Accordingly, the Council considers that the Specific Standards on Coverage of Suicide 3 and 4 were breached.
The Council’s Specific Standards on Coverage of Suicide 7 requires that reports of suicide should not be given undue prominence, especially by unnecessarily explicit headlines or images. The Council recognises the publication’s intention in attempting to raise awareness in a wider audience by featuring the story in a prominent manner. However, the Council considers that the explicit and large headline, the large front-page photo and the additional images used (one of which featured Bill’s baby) constitutes undue prominence. The Council considers that through this prominence, the publication failed to take sufficient care to avoid unnecessary harm to those who had been affected by the suicide, particularly the complainant. Accordingly, the Council considers that Specific Standards on Coverage of Suicide 7 was breached.
The Council’s General Principle 6 requires that publications 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. The Council considers that, given the prominence and level of detail relating to the suicide in the article and the lack of consultation, the publication failed to take reasonable steps to avoid substantial distress. Nor, given the focus of the article, was there a sufficient public interest to justify such distress. Accordingly, the Council considers that General Principle 6 was also breached.
However, the Council recognises and welcomes the publication’s comments that it will consider what occurred and be more mindful of the precautions its journalists may need to take in future.
Note: If you or someone close to you requires personal assistance, please contact Lifeline Australia on 13 11 14.
Relevant Council Standards
This Adjudication applies the following Standards of Practice:
Publications must take reasonable steps to:
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.”
7. Reports of suicide should not be given undue prominence, especially by unnecessarily explicit headlines or images. Great care should be taken to avoid causing unnecessary harm or hurt to people who have attempted suicide or to relatives and other people who have been affected by a suicide or attempted suicide. This requires special sensitivity and moderation in both gathering and reporting news*.