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Blackman, Sam --- "Suicide and the media: whether New Zealand's statutory restrictions on the reporting of suicide are justified" [2012] NZLawStuJl 4; (2012) 2 NZLSJ 746

Last Updated: 27 May 2014




New Zealand frequently ranks highly in OECD suicide statistics.1 The

2011 statistics rank New Zealand’s female youth suicide rate as highest in all 29 OECD countries and male youth suicide rate as third highest.2

In 2008, 497 people committed suicide in New Zealand.3 This is a rate of 11.2 suicides per 100,000 population. New Zealand’s suicide rate has fluctuated between 11 and 13 suicides per 100,000 population since

2000.4 Many people consider that the media reinforces suicide as taboo by reporting cases in euphemisms. 5 People may not realise New Zealand has a statutory regime that restricts publication of any details of suicides. The media constantly campaign for liberalisation of the restrictions.

Parliament introduced a new Coroners Bill in 2005 to replace the Coroners Act 1988. The press were aghast that the new Bill still contained restrictions on reporting suicide. They called the restrictions

* BA (Major in Philosophy and Logic and Computation); LLB(Hons) (in progress), The University of Auckland. The author would like to acknowledge Rosemary Tobin for her encouragement and critique on this article and Imogen Crispe for her ongoing discourse with him on the subject.

1 “OECD Health Data 2011” OECD (21 July 2011) <>.

2 National Indicators 2011 National Indicators 2011: Measuring mental health and addiction in New Zealand (Mental Health Commission, Wellington, 2011) at viii.

3 At 14.

4 “OECD Health Data 2011”, above n 1.

5 See for example Laura McQuillan “Quiet pages: the reporting of suicide in

New Zealand’s news media” (2009) Salient <>.

“draconian”, “paternalistic”, “patronising”, “outdated” 6 and “unduly restrictive”.7 Four media representatives made submissions to the Select Committee arguing for the removal of the restrictions. Their arguments fell on deaf ears. The Coroners Act 2006 was enacted containing sections restricting the reporting of suicide. These sections have retained their basic structure since the Coroners Act 1951.

This article examines the history of and justification for New Zealand’s restrictions on reporting suicide. The article critically assesses whether Parliament achieved the right balance between freedom of the press, public safety and family privacy. In doing so, it analyses and evaluates the media’s arguments in their submissions to the Select Committee. It concludes with suggestions for the future of the restrictions.

A. Current Industry Regulations

1. Print media

Print media self-regulates itself through the New Zealand Press Council. The Press Council provides the public with an independent complaint process against newspapers, magazines and other print media. The Press Council publishes a list of 11 principles under which the public may structure complaints. Most major print media organisations agree to abide by the principles and provide financial support to fund the Press Council. The Press Council’s statement of principles contains no express mention of the reporting of suicide. Only one complaint has been made on a report of an individual instance of suicide. When complaints have been made on articles discussing suicide they have related to Principle 1 (accuracy, fairness and balance),8 Principle 10 (photographs and graphics),9 or have been general complaints.

6 Commonwealth Press Union (New Zealand Section) “Submission to the

Justice and Electoral Committee on the Coroners Bill 2005”.

7 New Zealand Press Council “2005 Annual Report” (2005)


8 New Zealand Press Council “Case Number: 855 Tony Booker against the

Manawatu Evening Standard” (2001) <>.

9 New Zealand Press Council “Statement of Principles”


2. Broadcast media

Radio and television media are state-regulated by the Broadcasting Standards Authority. Different broadcasting codes exist for radio, free television and pay television. The public complain about breaches of the relevant codes. Guideline 2e of the Free-to-air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice states that “programmes should not glamorise suicide and should not give detailed descriptions about methods of suicide”. Free-to-air television reports of suicide may also fall under Standard 3 (Privacy—Broadcasters should maintain standards consistent with the privacy of the individual) or Standard 8 (Responsible Programming—Broadcasters should ensure that programme information and content is socially responsible). The Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice makes no express mention of how to broadcast reports or depictions of suicide. However, like the Free-to-air Code, radio reporting of suicide could fall under Standards 3 or 8 (as defined above).

B. History of the Coroners Act provision on publishing self- inflicted deaths

1. Coroners Act 1951

The current restriction on the reporting of self-inflicted deaths originated from s 21 of the Coroners Act 1951:

Section 21

(1) Subject to the provisions of this Act, where it appears to the Coroner at the commencement or in the course of an inquest that the circumstances are such that it appears possible that death may have been self inflicted, he may direct that no report, or no further report, of the proceedings shall be published until after he has made his finding.

(2) Where the Coroner finds that the death was self inflicted, no report of the proceedings of the inquest shall, without the authority of the Coroner, be published other than the name, address, and occupation of the deceased person, the fact that an inquest has been held, and that the Coroner has found that the death was self inflicted.

2. Coroners Act 1988

Section 29 of the 1988 Act retained and revised the suicide reporting provision from the 1951 Act. The new section stated that if there had been no inquest and there was reasonable cause to believe a death was self-inflicted, then no person could make public any particulars about the death.10 After an inquest, if the coroner found the death to be self- inflicted, the only particulars a person could make public were the deceased’s name, address, occupation and the fact that the coroner found the death to be self-inflicted. To make any other particular public required the express authority of the coroner. The phrase “make public” replaced the word “reporting”. The Act defined “make public” as publishing by means of broadcast, newspaper, book, journal, magazine, newsletter, other similar document, or sound or visual recording.11

The Government introduced the 1987 Coroners Bill primarily to deal with the purpose of inquests and cultural issues surrounding the release of bodies. 12 Members of the House did not discuss the suicide reporting provision other than to agree with the Department of Justice’s report on submissions.13 Two parties made submissions to the Select Committee on the provision. One submission only referred to semantic use of “suicide” instead of “self-inflicted death” and the breadth of the phrase “make public”.14 The other submission similarly suggested that “suicide” be replaced with “self-inflicted death”, but also argued that the fact a death was self-inflicted should not be recorded at all.15 This was on the basis that suicide is a very sensitive subject for next-of-kin. The legislative history suggests that the only reasons for retaining the provision in the 1988 Act were to protect the privacy and dignity of grieving relatives16 and because it appeared to have worked

10 Coroners Act 1988, s 29(2).

11 Section 29(1).

12 (14 July 1987) 482 NZPD 10430–10432.

13 (19 April 1988) 488 NZPD 3412.

14 S Osborne “Submission to the Justice and Law Reform Committee on the

Coroners Bill 1987” at 5.

15 Ian Beveridge “Submission to the Justice and Law Reform Committee on the Coroners Bill 1987” at 8.

16 (19 April 1988) 488 NZPD 3412.

successfully in practice since 1951.17

3. Coroners Act 2006

Parliament amended and consolidated the Coroners Act again in 2006 after a Law Commission review in 1999. 18 The Law Commission suggested that Parliament amend the 1988 Act to create the role of Chief Coroner so that the government would take coronial recommendations more seriously.19 The Parliamentary Debates show the primary reason for the new Act was to improve public confidence in the coronial process, particularly with regards to family involvement and cultural sensitivity.20

Parliament retained the suicide reporting restrictions, in s 71 of the

2006 Act. Most of s 71 remains semantically identical to s 29 of the

1988 Act. Section 71(1) retains the restriction for reporting prior to an inquest. Section 71(2) retains the same restrictions after a coroner finds a death to be self-inflicted. To make public any other particulars about a suicide still requires the coroner’s authority. The phrase “make public” was extended to include publishing on “an Internet site that is generally accessible to the public, or some other similar electronic means”.21

Prior to a coroner’s inquest regarding a death that may reasonably be suicide, s 71(1) restricts publication of any particular relating to how the death occurred. The plain meaning of “any particular” includes publication of the fact that a death was or could have been self- inflicted. This meaning is further supported by the fact that s 71(2) expressly allows publication that a death was self-inflicted after a coroner finds the death to be self-inflicted.

In contrast to the old Acts, coroners now have statutory criteria for considering whether to authorise the making public of further particulars. The overarching requirement is that “the making public of those particulars is unlikely to be detrimental to public safety”.22 In

17 Coroners Bill Report of the Department of Justice (1 March 1987) at 7.

18 Law Commission Coroners: A review (NZLC PP36, 1999).

19 At [133]–[136].

20 (14 December 2004) 622 NZPD 18087.

21 Coroners Act 2006, s 73.

22 Section 71(3).

determining this, a coroner must have regard to:23

(a) the characteristics of the person who is, or is suspected to be, the dead person concerned; and

(b) matters specified in any relevant practice notes issued under s 132 by the Chief Coroner; and

(c) any other matters the coroner considers relevant.

As of August 2011, the Chief Coroner has not publicly issued any relevant practice notes. However, the Chief Coroner has spoken out publicly on the matter. On multiple occasions he has called for more open discussion on suicide.24

The Act contains further relevant sections regarding suicide reporting restrictions. The penalty for contravention of s 71 is a fine of $5000 for a body corporate or $1000 for an individual.25 The penalty in the 1988

Act is identical26 and the penalty in the 1951 Act was a £100 fine or not more than one month’s imprisonment.27

Section 74 empowers a coroner to prohibit publication of any evidence if prohibition is in the interests of justice, decency, public order or personal privacy. This is a general power which extends to inquests of all types of death.

The suicide reporting provisions in the Coroners Bill 2005 became one of the most contentious topics of the new Act. The Electoral and Law Reform Committee received four submissions from media outlets and one submission from a mental health researcher on the restriction provision alone. Entire pages of Parliamentary debates were dedicated

23 Section 71(4).

24 Interview with Neil MacLean, Chief Coroner (Kathryn Ryan, Nine to Noon, Radio New Zealand National, 12 August 2010); Rebecca Todd “Suicides outnumber road deaths” (12 August 2010) Christchurch Press

<>; Chris Banks “The Chief Coroner and suicide

reporting” (27 May 2011) Suicide Prevention Information New Zealand


25 Coroners Act 2006, s 139.

26 Coroners Act 1988, s 43.

27 Coroners Act 1951, s 29.

to arguments for and against the restrictions.28

United Future MP Murray Smith raised the issue of the suicide reporting restriction in the Bill’s first reading. He noted that England, Wales, and Australia do not have a ban on the reporting of suicides, suggesting that that may be of some influence to New Zealand.

The Select Committee considered amending the Bill to allow the release of more details of suicides to the public. 29 However, the Select Committee ultimately retained the restrictions in the interest of public safety.30

In the Bill’s second reading, the House recognised how difficult the task was for the Select Committee.31 Three major points came out of the second reading:

(1) Families’ privacy should be given due weight and consideration.32

However, some families who have had a suicide in their family favour liberalising reporting on the topic.33

(2) People have suggested that removing the restrictions may reduce the number of suicides but the research evidence shows the contrary.34

(3) The Bill is not about restricting freedom of the press.35 The changes for which the media were asking were not vital to allow public debate on suicide to occur.36

The Committee of the whole House debated intensely on the topic. The Labour Government agreed with the Select Committee’s decision

28 (14 December 2004) 622 NZPD 18087–18095, 18096–18104; (2 May 2006)

630 NZPD 2664–2577; (25 July 2006) 632 NZPD 4394–4400; (2 August

2006) 633 NZPD 4666–4675.

29 Coroners Bill 2005 (228-2) at 3–4.

30 At 3–4.

31 (2 May 2006) 630 NZPD 2664, 2669, 2672.

32 At 2664.

33 At 2668.

34 At 2664.

35 At 2665.

36 At 2672.

to retain the restrictions. The National Party “sceptically supported”37 the section but voted against it being passed in its then form. They thought that the issue needed to be examined more closely.38 The worries of the National Party included lack of evidence that the media “glamorised” suicide, that no other western country had such stringent restrictions and that the issue of suicide needed to be publicly discussed.39

C. Current Guidelines for the Reporting of Suicide

1. Ministry of Health 1999 guidelines

In 1999 the Ministry of Health released guidelines on the reporting of suicide in the media. The Ministry developed the guidelines to educate media organisations about suicide generally and the effect that reporting suicide may have on vulnerable people.40

The guidelines introduce the “copycat suicide” phenomenon. The theory posits that reports of suicide in the media can lead to an increase in suicides surrounding the report. The guidelines then outline the evidence for copycat suicide. Part 2 of the guidelines discusses causes, myths and warning signs of suicide and provides relevant statistics. Part

3 offers practical considerations for media professionals when reporting

or portraying suicides.

Evidence suggests that the guidelines have largely been ignored by the news media.41 Despite ignorance or rejection of the guidelines, another study based on data gathered between 2008 and 2009 suggests that the quality of reporting is generally consistent with the guidelines.42 A 2010

37 (2 August 2006) 633 NZPD 4672.

38 At 4674.

39 At 4674.

40 Suicide and the media: The reporting and portrayal of suicide in the media (Ministry of

Health, Wellington, 1999) at iii.

41 Jim Tully and Nadia Elsaka A study of the media response to Suicide and the Media: The reporting and portrayal of suicide in the media: A resource (Government funded review, University of Canterbury, 2004) at ii.

42 Brian McKenna and others Reporting of Suicide in New Zealand Media (Te Pou,

Auckland, 2010) at 71.

study interviewed journalists on their experience of reporting suicide.43

This study found that only a third of the participants were aware of the Ministry of Health guidelines and of that third no one used the guidelines.44 The same study found that:45

Most [journalists interviewed] were skeptical of the imitative effects of suicide coverage, arguing that the true danger lay with excluding suicide from the news. This was the primary motivation for resisting guidelines and restrictions. Suicide coverage could be cathartic and informative, whereas the restrictions made the topic unapproachable and unspeakable.

2. World Health Organisation 2008 guidelines

The World Health Organisation published a document titled Preventing Suicide: A Resource for Media Professionals in 2008.46 These are the latest released guidelines relevant in New Zealand. The guidelines state that over 50 studies on copycat suicide exist47 and that reviews of these studies consistently conclude that media reporting of suicide can lead to copycat suicides.48 The guidelines provide a detailed and referenced appendix of the studies.49

The bulk of the guidelines are practical suggestions for the responsible reporting of suicide. These guidelines are based upon the scientific evidence gathered over the last 40 years. The guidelines suggest that people reporting suicide should:50

(1) take the opportunity to educate the public about suicide;

(2) avoid language which sensationalises or normalises suicide, or

43 Sunny Collings and Christopher Kemp “Death knocks, professional practice, and the public good: The media experience of suicide reporting in New Zealand” (2010) 71 Social Science & Medicine 244.

44 At 246.

45 At 246.

46 Preventing Suicide: A Resource for Media Professionals (World Health

Organization, Geneva, 2008).

47 At 6.

48 At 6.

49 At 13–18.

50 At 7–11.

presents it as a solution to problems;

(3) avoid prominent placement and undue repetition of stories about suicide;

(4) avoid explicit description of the method used in a completed or attempted suicide;

(5) avoid providing detailed information about the site of a completed or attempted suicide;

(6) word headlines carefully;

(7) exercise caution in using photographs or video footage; (8) take particular care in reporting celebrity suicides;

(9) show due consideration for people bereaved by suicide; (10) provide information about where to seek help; and

(11) recognise that media professionals themselves may be affected by stories about suicide.

D. Arguments for Restrictions

There are two primary reasons for the restrictions against suicide reporting. First, the restrictions aim to reduce the risk of suicide. Secondly, the restrictions aim to protect the privacy of the deceased and his or her family.51 Generally, health professionals and policymakers accept these two reasons as adequate justification for the restrictions contained within the Coroners Act. Media professionals attempt to refute these justifications and give their own arguments for liberalising the restrictions. Discussed below are arguments and counter arguments for each position.

1. Risk of copycat suicides

(a) Primary evidence

51 See Coroners Bill: Departmental Report (Ministry of Justice, 27 February 2006) at 16; Burrows, John and Cheer, Ursula Media Law in New Zealand (6th ed, LexisNexis NZ, Wellington, 2010) at [8.8.3].

In 1774, Goethe published a novel titled The Sorrows of Young Werther.52

The protagonist, Werther, shot himself because he fell in love with a woman betrothed to another man. After its release a raft of suicides across Europe ensued. Each of these suicides was in a manner similar to that of Werther’s. Some of the deceased were found with copies of the book and others were found dressed in clothing similar to the character. This is the first recorded evidence of copycat suicide, otherwise known as the “Werther effect”.

In 1974 a United States researcher, David Phillips, undertook the first scientific study of the Werther effect in modern society.53 Phillips found a significant increase in suicides in 26 out of 33 months in which a suicide was reported on the front page of a newspaper.54 Since this study, numerous other researchers have performed direct research and hundreds of academics have formally reviewed these studies. The entire body of evidence consistently points to the conclusion that the reporting of suicide in the media can lead to imitative suicidal behaviour.55

One of the most illustrative studies focused on media reports in Hong Kong in the late 1990s.56 In November 1998 a woman in Hong Kong committed suicide by burning charcoal in an enclosed space. Prior to this case there were no known cases of suicide in this manner.57 The media extensively covered the suicide. Newspapers graphically reported the story on the front page. Reports included pictures of the deceased and the receptacle in which she burnt charcoal. In the nine weeks following the reports, 22 people committed suicide using the same method.58 Within five years charcoal burning became the second most

52 Johann Wolfgang von Goethe The Sorrows of Young Werther trans William

Rose (Scholartis Press, London, 1929).

53 David Phillips “The Influence of Suggestions on Suicide: Substantive and Theoretical Implications of the Werther Effect” (1974) 39 American Sociological Review 340.

54 At 342.

55 For a brief but thorough history of the Werther effect and relevant studies up until 2008, see WHO guidelines above n 46, at 13–15.

56 Wai Sau Chung and Chi Ming Leung “Carbon Monoxide Poisoning as a

New Method of Suicide in Hong Kong” (2001) 52 Psychiatric Services 836.

57 At 836.

common form of suicide in Hong Kong.59 The rates of other suicide methods did not decrease in parallel to the increase in suicide by charcoal burning.60

The most recent review of the entire body of research (a review of 97 studies) concludes that it is reasonable to regard the association between newspaper suicide reporting and increased suicide rates as causal. 61 The same review finds the association between television reports of suicides and increased suicides weaker than that in newspaper reports, but concludes that there is still cautious support for a causal relationship.62

(b) Media contentions and counter arguments

The media continually try to refute the evidence suggesting causation between reporting suicides and an increase in suicides following reportage. This position is most apparent in the Press Council’s submissions on the Coroners Bill 2005. They state:63

The Press Council eschews debate on the issue of “contagion” or “copycat suicide” except to say that the evidence to support this is very unclear. We do not agree with the conclusions the Ministry of Health seem to draw from their readings of the academic literature for the booklet “Suicide and the Media, The reporting and portrayal of suicide in the media”.


Among those who watch with some trepidation the expansion of media interest in suicide are a number of mental health professionals who continue to express their fear that such media interest will trigger

59 Ka Liu and others “Charcoal burning suicides in Hong Kong and urban Taiwan: an illustration of the impact of a novel suicide method on overall regional rates” (2007) 61 Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health

248 at 250.

60 At 250.

61 Jane Pirkis and Warwick Blood Suicide and the news and information media: A Critical Review (Commonwealth of Australia, 2010) at 3.

62 At 3.

63 New Zealand Press Council “Submission to the Justice and Electoral

Committee on the Coroners Bill 2005” at 3– 4.

a “copycat” effect. Yet we stress that New Zealand’s restrictive reporting regimes, set alongside the rise in suicides in recent years, would suggest the opposite and even that the strategy of “censorship” has been unsuccessful.

The Council has now dealt with several complaints about the reporting of suicide. In order to reach its findings, some study of the subject was obviously necessary. The Council found, as a result, that the research often relied upon by health experts is not as conclusive as it had been led to believe.

Other submissions seem to suggest that the evidence must be wrong because New Zealand’s suicide rate is so high. The Commonwealth Press Union states:64

The premise upon which the section is based is that publicity about suicides induces others to follow suit. The corollary of that position must surely be that silence on the subject will lead to fewer self- inflicted death[s]. New Zealand’s woeful suicide statistics would suggest that such a theory is deeply flawed.

A separate submission from the Commonwealth Press Union states:65

Central to our submission is the question: is the veil of secrecy that currently exists helping to reduce suicide rates?

When we have the world’s highest suicide rate for males and females aged 15-24 years, the answer has to be no.

(c) Critique of media’s position

The media argues against the body of evidence without any evidence in their favour. The Press Council contends that the evidence to support copycat suicide is unclear. This is false. At the time of their submissions, a significant number of studies all pointed in the same direction: media coverage of suicide can cause copycat suicides. That body of evidence has continued to grow and the conclusion of the studies has not changed.

In debating the 2005 Bill, Hon Rick Barker had a similar view. He had

64 Commonwealth Press Union, above n 6, at 1.

done his own research and had found “every piece of evidence to be very clear”.66 He voiced his cynicism regarding the submissions from the media that challenged the evidence.

All four media submitters made the following argument:

Health researchers claim that media coverage of suicide causes an increase in suicides. If this is true, then since we have restrictions on the reporting of suicide, we should have a lower suicide rate than other countries which do not have restrictions. This is not the case. Our suicide rate is one of the highest in the OECD. Therefore, media coverage of suicide must not cause an increase in suicides.

The problem with this argument lies with the second premise. The premise states: “If media coverage of suicide causes an increase in suicides and we have restrictions on the reporting of suicide, then we should have a lower suicide rate than countries without restrictions”. This premise is implausible. The media conflates a sufficient cause with a contributory cause. No one is arguing that media coverage will be the sole factor causing a suicide without which the suicide would not have occurred. A plethora of recognised factors exist as to why people commit suicide. It is likely that these factors are more prevalent in New Zealand than other countries and that is why we have a high rate of suicide.

The media desperately want the freedom to publish suicides in the manner they choose. However, arguing against a solid body of scientific evidence is not an effective method of convincing Parliament to remove the restrictions.

2. Privacy of victims’ families67

66 (2 August 2006) 633 NZPD 4668.

67 Since the writing of this article, Whata J has recognised a tort of “intrusion upon seclusion” in C v Holland [2012] NZHC 2155. The elements of the tort, at [94], include: an intentional and unauthorised intrusion; into seclusion (namely intimate personal activity, space or affairs); involving infringement of a reasonable expectation of privacy; that is highly offensive to a reasonable person. A family member of a person who has committed suicide may well succeed under this tort against a media outlet that publishes details about the suicide.

Dealing with a suicide in the family can be difficult. Dr Annette Beautrais68 of the Canterbury Suicide Project made submissions that families bereaved by a suicide feel stigmatised, shamed and socially isolated by the death.69 Beautrais provided a range of studies which suggested that these families can better cope without media coverage.70

Hosking v Runting provides New Zealand’s test for whether information is private and warrants protection. 71 Information is private if the information holds a reasonable expectation of privacy and its disclosure would be highly offensive to a reasonable person of ordinary sensibilities.72 A legitimate public concern in the matter can override the right to privacy. 73 Also, in the context of making suicides public, families can consent to the release of private facts.

Both the Press Council and the Broadcasting Standards Authority have privacy principles. The Press Council’s second principle, “Privacy”, states:74

Everyone is normally entitled to privacy of person, space and personal information, and these rights should be respected by publications. Nevertheless the right of privacy should not interfere with publication of significant matters of public record or public interest.

Publications should exercise particular care and discretion before identifying relatives of persons convicted or accused of crime where the reference to them is not relevant to the matter reported.

68 Dr Beautrais is currently a Senior Research Scientist at the Yale School of


69 Canterbury Suicide Project “Submission to the Justice and Electoral

Committee on the Coroners Bill 2005” at 6.

70 At 6–8.

71 Hosking v Runting [2004] NZCA 34; [2005] 1 NZLR 1 (CA).

72 At [259].

73 At [129]. See also Andrews v Television New Zealand [2009] 1 NZLR 220 (HC)

at [81].

74 New Zealand Press Council “Statement of Principles”


Those suffering from trauma or grief call for special consideration.

The Broadcasting Standards Authority includes an appendix to privacy principles to which broadcasters should adhere. The same appendix appears in all three codes.75 The first paragraph of the appendix is a reiteration of the principle from Hosking v Runting. 76 Paragraph 5 provides that consent is a legitimate defence to a privacy complaint. Paragraph 8 provides that legitimate public concern is also a defence.

A death within a family holds a reasonable expectation of privacy. If there is no legitimate public concern surrounding the death and the family do not wish to make public the death or facts about it, then its disclosure would surely be offensive to the reasonable person with ordinary sensibilities. It follows that a suicide in the family should be at least as private as any other death. The stigma, shame and isolation specific to suicide suggest that a suicide within a family is more private than other types of death.

Recent media coverage has shown that many families want coroners to allow wider publication of their family member’s suicide.77 Even though family consent removes the privacy concern, the risk of copycat suicides still exists.

Whether or not there is legitimate public concern in individual suicides is discussed in Part E below.

75 Broadcasting Standards Authority Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice (Broadcasting Standards Authority, Wellington, 2009) at 12; Broadcasting Standards Authority Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice (Broadcasting Standards Authority, Wellington, 2008) at 8; Broadcasting Standards Authority Pay Television Code of Broadcasting Practice (Broadcasting Standards Authority, Wellington, 2008) at 10.

76 That “it is inconsistent with an individual’s privacy to allow the public

disclosure of private facts, where the disclosure is highly offensive to an objective reasonable person”. See Hosking v Runting, above n 71, at [259].

77 Paul Easton “Suicide victims’ families want details made public” (28 April

2011) The Dominion Post <>; Maria Bradshaw “Let bereaved speak out to help save other lives” (31 May 2011) The Dominion Post <>; Chris Banks “The chief coroner and suicide reporting” (27 May 2011) Suicide Prevention Information New Zealand

<>; (2 May 2006) 630 NZPD 2668.

3. Irresponsible media

The scientific research on copycat suicide has shown that certain methods of reporting can exacerbate the phenomenon.78 A 2010 New Zealand study found that “[journalists’] work is shaped by pragmatic and at times competing imperatives: career progression, time constraints, competition for sales, and the public interest.” 79 When media outlets are driven by multiple imperatives, they may intentionally or unintentionally report a case of suicide so as to make it as newsworthy as possible. This may directly conflict with best practice methods of suicide reporting and responsible journalism. Senior news executives have acknowledged that “not all media would act responsibly, especially in an intensely competitive environment”.80 Paul Thompson of Fairfax Media has said that some irresponsible journalism is the price you pay for an open society and free media but most journalists were responsible.81 Perhaps when that price includes the increased risk of further suicides a small limitation on media freedom is justified.

The case studies in Part E and F of this article contain likely examples of irresponsible journalism in reporting suicide.

E. Arguments Against Restrictions

Because the statutory restrictions on reporting suicide are the current status quo, the burden of proof lies with media representatives to disprove or discredit the public safety and privacy concerns s 71 protects.82

1. Freedom of expression

The New Zealand Press Council stated that freedom of expression was at the heart of their submissions on the Coroners Bill 2005. The

78 Preventing Suicide: A Resource for Media Professionals, above n 46, at 7–11.

79 Collings and Kemp, above n 43, at 247.

80 Tully and Elsaka, above n 41, at 12.

81 At 12.

82 For a discussion of where the burden of proof should lie when challenging existing laws (and generally), see Bruce Waller Critical Thinking: Consider the Verdict (5th ed, Pearson Prentice Hall, New Jersey, 2005) at 52.

Council opined that, based on their experience in handling complaints regarding suicide reporting, 83 the public’s disposition has shifted towards a greater readiness to discuss the issue of suicide. They suggested that “the public now actively seeks information and guidance, as they have never done before” and that it is the media’s prerogative to transmit this information to the public.84

Freedom of expression is codified in s 14 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act. Section 5 of the Bill of Rights Act provides that the rights and freedoms contained within the Bill of Rights Act can be subject to reasonable limitations. Judicial interpretation of this section has formulated the following test for whether a limit to a right is reasonable and demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society:85

(1) The legislation which contains the limitation must have an important and significant objective.

(2) There must be a rational connection between the limitation and the objective.

(3) The limitation must be in reasonable proportion to the importance of the objective.

(4) The limitation must interfere as little as possible with the affected right.

The privacy and public safety objectives of s 71 of the Coroners Act

2006 are important and significant. The body of research outlined above gives credence to a rational connection between the limitation on freedom of expression and these objectives. The crucial question is whether the proportion between the limitation and objective is reasonable and whether the limitation interferes with freedom of expression as little as possible.

The research paints a clear picture that there is a real risk of causing a spike in suicide rates by reporting suicides. In Tucker v News Media

83 Note that the Press Council has only adjudicated one complaint on the reporting of an individual case of suicide.

84 New Zealand Press Council “Submission to the Justice and Electoral

Committee on the Coroners Bill 2005”, above n 63, at 2.

85 Moonen v Film and Literature Board of Review [1999] NZCA 329; [2000] 2 NZLR 9 (CA) at [18].

Ownership Ltd McGechan J explored the connection between freedom of expression and risk to life:86

Great care must be exercised where the Court is aware that life potentially is at risk. ... Where a right to freedom of speech and a right to life are in competition, the balance must be struck with particular care.

Although the right to life is not directly in competition with freedom of expression in the current discussion, lives are still potentially at risk if the limitation does not exist. The evidence shows the real risk to life of reporting suicide. McGechan J’s statement in Tucker highlights the importance of protecting the lives and wellbeing of people. This objective surely justifies even drastic limitations on freedom of expression. Even if that is the case, the following reasons further justify the limitation as proportional and a minimal impairment to rights.

First, coroners have the discretion to allow the publication of particulars of suicides. Secondly, the media have the ability at any time before or during an inquest to request authorisation from a coroner to publish particulars about a suicide. If an inquest has already taken place and the coroner has not authorised publication, the media can apply to the High Court for authorisation.87 Thirdly, the limitation only restricts the publication of particulars about individual cases of suicide. The media are free to report on the topic of suicide generally. This can include annual statistics, factors which cause suicide and public opinion on suicide. These three reasons suggest that the proportionality is reasonable and the limitation interferes with freedom of expression only minimally in achieving the objective of the Act.

The Crown Law Office gave the Attorney-General advice that s 71 of the Coroners Act was a justified limitation on the freedom of speech.88

The advice only mentioned the right to privacy as a justified limitation

on freedom of expression. The advice did not mention the risk to public safety through copycat suicide. But, as argued above, the risk to

86 Tucker v News Media Ownership Ltd [1986] NZHC 216; [1986] 2 NZLR 716 (HC) at 34–35.

87 Coroners Act 2006, s 75.

88 Letter from the Crown Law Office to the Attorney-General regarding the

Coroners Bill’s consistency with the Bill of Rights Act 1990 (2 November

2004) at [4.2].

public safety also provides a justified limitation on freedom of expression.

2. The public have a legitimate interest

The media continue suggesting that the public have an interest in suicide in this country and that they seek information and guidance. All four Coroners Bill media submissions argued that the public have a legitimate interest in suicide in this country. For a legitimate public interest argument to succeed, the public interest must outweigh both the privacy and public safety concerns. The greater the effect on privacy and public safety, the greater the level of public concern must be.89

There is little doubt that New Zealand’s suicide rate is a legitimate public concern. It is also likely that causes of suicide and prevention measures are of legitimate concern. Family consent or public interest can easily overcome the privacy concern. Examples of this include cases of murder-suicide where the public should be informed that there is not a killer at large. It is harder to argue that public concern is so great that it outweighs the risk of copycat suicides.

Health researchers express doubt as to whether details about individual cases of suicide need to be published to satisfy legitimate public concern. Professor David Fergusson, director of the Christchurch Health and Development Study, suggests details are unnecessary. 90

Fergusson suggests that an open and frank discussion of the suicide problem in New Zealand can take place without reporting individual suicides. Any legitimate public concern can be satisfied by reporting the general prevalence of suicide in our society and what we can do to lower the risk.

In Hosking v Runting Gault P and Blanchard J distinguish “legitimate public interest” from “general interest”. 91 Most individual cases of suicide are likely in the public’s general interest. Releasing particulars of individual suicides may just stoke the flames of the rumour mill and

89 Andrews v Television New Zealand, above n 73, at [84].

90 Interview with David Fergusson, Director of the Christchurch Health and Development Study (Kathryn Ryan, Nine to Noon, Radio New Zealand National, 25 May 2010).

91 Hosking v Runting, above n 71, at [133].

satisfy the public’s voyeuristic fascination with others’ lives. Surely the real public interest lies in the causes, prevalence and warning factors of suicide. As Fergusson suggests, discussing suicide on a more general level should satisfy any legitimate public concern.

The only way for the media to counter this argument is to suggest that details and particulars of individual cases are necessary to satisfy the legitimate public concern. The media could posit that the only way to educate the public about the causes, prevalence and warning factors of suicide is to publish factual human interest stories with which they can connect.

This argument is hard to accept. The debate regarding the reporting of suicide itself has arguably been more beneficial to public education and guidance than any release of individual particulars. Furthermore, reporters can write newsworthy human interest stories on the topic of suicide without including particulars of an individual suicide. It is implausible to suggest that releasing particulars of individual cases is the only way to satisfy legitimate public interest.

Coroners already have the power and discretion to release as much detail as they see fit. The only caveat on this is that the statute expressly states that coroners may only release information if “it will be unlikely to be detrimental to public safety”. A situation could arise in which there is some likelihood of detriment to public safety, but there is also legitimate public concern in the matter. In such a situation coroners are required by the statute not to release any particulars. However, the Chief Coroner has interpreted this provision as “you can release particulars if it will do good”.92 If that interpretation is accepted, release due to public interest may be justified.

3. Open discussion will lower the rate of suicide

The media’s arguments against the Werther effect were discussed in Part D above. The media further argue that engaging in public debate about suicide will help lower the rate.93

92 Interview with Neil MacLean, above n 24.

93 New Zealand Press Council “Submission to the Justice and Electoral

Committee on the Coroners Bill 2005”, above n 63, at 4; Commonwealth

There is merit in the suggestion that open discussion will help lower our suicide rate. Merryn Statham, director of Suicide Prevention Information New Zealand, encourages discussion of our suicide rates so the issue does not get hidden.94 As a public health issue, people should know about the prevalence of suicide in New Zealand and the factors likely to cause it. However, as argued above, it is unlikely that individual cases need to be reported to engage in discussion about suicide.

The Chief Science Advisor to the Prime Minister recently published an advisory report. In this report, Keren Skegg suggests we heed the following advice: 95

Beware of naïve claims by ‘instant experts’—everybody has an opinion about suicide prevention, and some proposals can be potentially harmful, no matter how intuitive they may sound. The recent suggestion that increased coverage of suicide in the media will reduce suicide is a good example. There is no evidence at all to support this theory, and much evidence that it would actually do harm.

4. The risk from social communication and new media

Media commentators and the Chief Coroner suggest that the risk to the public is far greater through social and Internet transmissions than through the media.96 These transmissions include word of mouth, text messaging and posts on websites like Facebook, Twitter and blogs. The media suggest that they could act as a foil to dispel the false rumours that inevitably circulate following a suicide in a community.97

Press Union “Submission to the Justice and Electoral Committee on the Coroners Bill 2005”, above n 65, at 1.

94 Interview with Merryn Statham, Director of Suicide Prevention Information New Zealand (Kathryn Ryan, Nine to Noon, Radio New Zealand National, 12 August 2010).

95 Keren Skegg “Youth Suicide” in Peter Gluckman and Harlene Hayne (eds)

Improving the Transition: Reducing Social and Psychological Morbidity During Adolescence (Office of the Prime Minister’s Science Advisory Committee, Auckland, 2011) 207 at 214–215.

96 Interview with Neil MacLean, above n 24.

97 Commonwealth Press Union (New Zealand Section), above n 6, at [16].

The research on the effect of social media and the Internet to suicide is still in its infancy. The latest review has found sufficient evidence to put forward a cautious hypothesis of causation between social media and increased rates of suicide.98 Although it is illegal under s 71 to release particulars through social media, this is difficult to police. If news of suicides will inevitably spread through the Internet, social media and other social channels, then perhaps the restrictions are redundant and the media could play a role in setting the story straight.

The criticisms on this position are as follows. The restrictions are only redundant if there is a one-to-one mapping of social media consumers and mainstream media consumers. The communication of a suicide through social channels and the Internet may only reach as far as the local community. The only people likely to be reading a person’s Facebook or Twitter posts are people socially connected with that person. Within New Zealand, reporting suicides in newspapers or on television is likely to reach a wider (and different) audience than the audience through the Internet and social channels. Reporting individual suicides in the mainstream media also has the potential to fuel further discussion through social mechanisms. People commonly use online social media to share links to mainstream media websites and reports of suicide.99

Dispelling false rumours would likely require publication of details which exacerbate the copycat effect like the location and method of the suicide. The guidelines and research suggest against including these details in articles.100 Publication of such details would arguably do more harm to the public than the harm caused by misinformation held by a limited set of people.

5. Other countries lack restrictions

Submissions from the Christchurch Press and the Commonwealth Press Union both argue that since statutory restrictions on the reporting of suicide are uncommon across western countries New

98 Pirkis and Blood, above n 61, at 4.

99 See, for example, a post in Steven Price’s media law blog, Steven Price

“Jumping the gun?” (18 April 2011) Media Law Journal


100 Preventing Suicide: A Resource for Media Professionals, above n 46.

Zealand should remove its restrictions.101

The Commonwealth Press Union lists western countries that do not have statutory restrictions on the reporting of suicide. These include the United Kingdom, Denmark, Germany, Norway, France, the United States and Australia. The Union then states that each of these countries uses cooperation between media, governments and health professionals as a basis for the safe reportage of suicide.

Paul Thompson, then editor of the Christchurch Press, also submitted the following:102

So far as I am aware statutory restrictions of this kind are unusual in the western world, if not unique. I can think of no logical reason why New Zealanders should be any different in this matter than are Australians, or Canadians, or Americans, and so on. The restrictions suggest a paternalistic, patronising attitude towards New Zealanders that is outdated and unnecessary.

The media’s argument is as follows:

A multitude of countries do not have statutory restrictions on the reporting of suicide. Instead, they all promote cooperation between media, government and health professionals to exercise the safe reportage of suicide. These countries include those to which New Zealand looks for its own law making. Therefore we should adopt a similar position to these countries.

The fact that other countries lack statutory restrictions provides no direct reason for New Zealand changing its current position. This argument is an argumentum ad populum. It may be the case that New Zealand is in fact pioneering the way forward and all of the other countries should employ statutory restrictions. It may also be that once statutory restrictions are removed in other countries it is too difficult to re-enact them, so countries must do their best to regulate suicide

101 The Christchurch Press “Submission to the Justice and Electoral Committee on the Coroners Bill 2005”; Commonwealth Press Union (New Zealand Section) “Submission to the Justice and Electoral Committee on the Coroners Bill 2005”, above n 6.

102 The Christchurch Press “Submission to the Justice and Electoral

Committee on the Coroners Bill 2005”, above n 101, at [12].

reporting outside of legislation. There could also be reasons specific to New Zealand that set it apart from other countries and justify its statutory restrictions.

The other flaw in this argument is that various jurisdictions to which New Zealand looks for its own law making do in fact have statutory restrictions on the reporting of suicide. For example, coroners in New South Wales and Queensland have the power to prohibit the publication of information about suicides.103

If the media are to appeal to the law in other countries, then they must ask why those countries lack restrictions. To take the overseas lack of restrictions themselves as justification for change in New Zealand is to commit a logical fallacy. The failure is in arguing for a conclusion based on the merits of its source rather than the merits of the proposition itself.

6. No restrictions exist on attempted suicides and overseas suicides

The current restrictions in the Coroners Act do not restrict the media from reporting attempted suicides or suicides which occurred overseas. Research has linked the Werther effect to attempted suicides as well as completed suicides.104 If media are free to report attempted suicides and overseas suicides in as much detail as they want, this undermines the purpose of the restrictions in the Coroners Act.

In 2008 the Sunday News published a full front-page article on an attempted suicide by broadcaster Tony Veitch. 105 The front page contained photographs and the text “VEITCH SUICIDE BID”. The article provided the method, address and a photograph of the location of the attempt. The Sunday News published a similar front-page article in 2009, again with photographs and text reading “VEITCH IN SUICIDE ATTEMPT”.106 Various newspapers printed a total of 28

103 Coroners Act 2009, s 75 (NSW); Coroners Act 2003, s 41 (Qld).

104 Pirkis and Blood, above n 61, at 6.

105 “Veitch in suicide Bid” (7 September 2008) Sunday News


106 John Matheson “Veitch in suicide attempt” (19 April 2009) Sunday News


articles on Veitch’s suicide attempts and television news stations reported the attempts twice. 107 These instances of reporting clearly breached the guidelines for responsible suicide reporting. Reports were prominently placed and repetitive, the method and location of the attempts were explicitly described, headlines were not worded carefully and the news was particularly sensitive due to the celebrity status of Veitch.

Similarly, because coronial jurisdiction covers only deaths within New Zealand, 108 overseas suicides can be reported without restriction. Multiple news outlets published the method of Split Enz drummer Paul Hester’s suicide in Melbourne in 2005.109

These stories demonstrate that irresponsible journalism can occur in relation to suicide reporting. Although the guidelines for suicide reporting extend to attempts and overseas suicides, the restrictions in the Coroners Act do not.

7. The media circumvents restrictions using euphemisms

When black letter law restricts the media from reporting on an issue and the media disagree with that law, the media try their best to find ways around the law. For reporting suicide, that comes in the form of euphemisms.

When the media is restricted from reporting what they otherwise consider a newsworthy suicide, they still report it but do not call “suicide”. Common euphemisms include “the death was not suspicious” and “no one else is sought in connection with the death”.110

People read these phrases in context with the rest of the story and quickly realise that the story regards suicide. The Christchurch Press often reports suicides as “suspected suicides” if the coroner has not

107 McKenna and others, above n 42, at 92.

108 Coroners Act 2006, s 59(a).

109 Martin Johnston “Media push for more freedom in suicide reports” (7

April 2005) New Zealand Herald <>.

110 See Tully and Elsaka, above n 41, at 10.

allowed the release of particulars.111

The New Zealand Herald reported the location of the June 2011 King’s College student suicide without using the word “suicide”.112 The Herald wrote: “He was found critically injured at Greenlane Bridge, south of the central city, a short time later and rushed to Auckland Hospital, where he died.”

The Herald makes no mention of suicide or jumping, but gives enough information for the reasonable person to infer both. The media’s circumvention of the statutory restrictions in this manner further undermines the restrictions’ intended purpose.

8. Self-regulation as an alternative

An appeal to other countries’ suicide reporting regimes does not in itself strongly suggest that we should remove our own restrictions. But there may be independent reasons that we should strive towards a cooperative regime of regulatory guidelines as opposed to statutory restrictions.

Research suggests that “ownership” of guidelines is important to media professionals and that media professionals would prefer to wait for media sanctioned guidelines than adopt and follow Ministry of Health guidelines. 113 Notwithstanding the issue of whether or not media professionals should follow the Ministry of Health guidelines, it seems that they are not following the guidelines.114

This is unfortunate because the Ministry of Health guidelines, although over a decade old, still contain valuable information consistent with

111 See McKenna and others, above n 42, at 124. See also an audio clip of Paul

Thompson (Jeremy Rose, Media Watch, Radio New Zealand National, 21

September 2008).

112 “King’s College in mourning after student’s death” (12 June 2011) New

Zealand Herald <>.

113 Collings and Kemp, above n 43, at 247.

114 At 246.

current research and the 2008 WHO guidelines.115 Researchers also found that while the quality of most reports was consistent with the Ministry of Health guidelines, very few items followed suggestions of methods to make a positive impact.116

Researchers recently interviewed senior media professionals and found they felt their interactions with health professionals and policymakers have been ineffective and detrimental to collaboration.117 Those media professionals welcomed a fresh partnership grounded in mutual respect.

In December 2011, the media collaborated with the Ministry of Health, health researchers and the Chief Coroner to create updated reporting guidelines.118 All of the material in the new guidelines can be found in previous guidelines. In a press release, Associate Minister of Health Peter Dunne expressed optimism that the new guidelines would work because of the media contribution and buy-in. 119 Whether Dunne’s optimism is well-founded remains to be seen.

F. The Latest Position from Coroners

In August 2010, the Chief Coroner, Judge Neil MacLean, released information to the media concerning the number and methods of suicides in the preceding year.120 This reignited the debate between the media and health professionals. Judge MacLean’s view was to encourage more openness, public debate and media coverage of the suicide rate.121

Since the widespread publication of Judge MacLean’s position it seems

115 Peter Dunne Report to the Prime Minister: Review of the restrictions on the media reporting of suicide (Ministerial Committee on Suicide Prevention, 4

November 2010).

116 McKenna and others, above n 42, at 71.

117 Collings and Kemp, above n 43, at 246.

118 Reporting Suicide: A resource for the media (Ministry of Health, Wellington,


119 Ministry of Health “Dunne releases media suicide reporting guidelines” (press release, 22 December 2011).

120 Rebecca Todd “Suicides outnumber road deaths” (12 August 2010) Christchurch Press <>.

121 Interview with Neil MacLean, above n 24.

that other coroners are beginning to more frequently release particulars of individual suicides. Taranaki coroner Tim Scott released extensive particulars on at least five suicides between February and July 2011. The Manawatu Standard and Taranaki Daily Times reported most of these suicides122 and the Dominion Post ran a front-page article on one of the suicides.123

On 3 February 2011, the Taranaki coroner authorised the publication of all details on a suicide that occurred in 2009. On 4 February 2011, the Manawatu Standard ran a front-page article on the suicide which contained a detailed description of the method of suicide. 124 The following day the newspaper published an article on a separate suicide, the reporting of which was again authorised by the coroner.125 The newspaper published a detailed description of the method of suicide, the location of the suicide and the deceased’s personal circumstances leading up to the suicide. The coroner’s justification for the release of details was that the method was common. In March, the Taranaki Daily News published an article about a man with “an extreme and unsuccessful gambling habit” who committed suicide. 126 The article mentioned the method and the man’s circumstances on the day he died. On 25 May 2011 the Dominion Post published a front-page article on the suicide of Luana Nicholson.127 The newspaper quoted the coroner as saying:

I do not think it can be detrimental to public safety to make public the details of Luana’s death. Sad and tragic as it is, death by hanging is a

122 Jimmy Ellingham and Stacey Kirk “Oversight ‘failed’ suicidal student” Manawatu Standard (Palmerston North, 4 February 2011) at 1; Stacey Kirk “Obsessive man took own life” Manawatu Standard (Palmerston North, 5

February 2011) at A3; Lyn Humphreys “Events suspicious, but death

suicide” Taranaki Daily Times (New Plymouth, 23 March 2011) at 3.

123 Clio Francis “Luana’s tragic tale” Dominion Post (Wellington, 25 May

2011) at A1.

124 Jimmy Ellingham and Stacey Kirk “Oversight ‘failed’ suicidal student” Manawatu Standard (Palmerston North, 4 February 2011) at 1.

125 Stacey Kirk “Obsessive man took own life” Manawatu Standard

(Palmerston North, 5 February 2011) at A3.

126 Lyn Humphreys “Events suspicious, but death suicide” Taranaki Daily

Times (New Plymouth, 23 March 2011) at 3.

127 Clio Francis “Luana’s tragic tale” Dominion Post (Wellington, 25 May

2011) at A1.

very common method of suicide in New Zealand. ... There is nothing particularly mysterious about it and publication of details here, should the media wish to do so, is not going to make it any more likely that people will take their lives by hanging in the future. Sadly this is a given, the method is so well-known.

The article contained a photograph of Nicholson and a further detailed description of the method she used to commit suicide.

The Taranaki coroner is not the only one authorising the release of particulars. The Chief Coroner released details in late 2010 of a suicide in Whangarei.128 Newspapers once again reported a detailed description of the method and location of suicide and photographs of the deceased.129 The Wellington coroner also recently released particulars of a suicide committed using an uncommon method.130 Multiple news outlets, including newspapers, television websites and radio stations reported the story with a detailed description of the method.131 In the articles, the coroner was quoted as saying:

There is a body of opinion that believe it is detrimental to allow the publication of particulars of suicide in that it may induce what I have referred to as “the copycat syndrome”. ... I believe that due to the availability to any person who is able to access a computer database in this age, that it is information freely available for the world to see. The cat as they say is out of the bag. ... My answer is that I believe that in this day and age it is simply not possible to 'cover up' any disclosure.

This evidence suggests that coroners are gradually liberalising the restrictions of their own accord. From the recent coverage, it also seems as if journalists are taking coroners’ authorisations as a

128 Mike Dinsdale “Judge reveals details of Northland woman’s suicide” (17

December 2010) Northern Advocate <>.

129 Dinsdale, above n 128; “Suicide verdict in Cloudy Williams inquest” (16

December 2010) Otago Daily Times <>.

130 “Coroner aims spotlight on dangers of helium” (22 August 2011) New

Zealand Herald <>.

131 The Stuff website, the Dominion Post, the Marlborough Express, the Manawatu Standard, the Nelson Mail, the Press West Coast, the Sunday Star Times and the TVNZ website all published Fairfax reporter Clio Francis’s story “Helium suicide sparks call for review” (22 August 2011)

<>; Katrina Bennett “Details of young man’s suicide

released” (22 August 2011) Newstalk ZB <>.

recommendation to publish, rather than just permission. In conjunction with the lack of respect for suicide reporting guidelines, this could create a dangerous environment for people vulnerable to suicide. Coroners should make it clear that they are not recommending publication and that should a media outlet choose to publish, that outlet should have due respect for guidelines.

G. Suggestions for the Future

There are three options in relation to the current statutory restrictions for suicide reporting. Parliament could:

(1) retain the status quo and leave the restrictions in place as they are; or

(2) extend the restrictions to include attempted and overseas suicides; or

(3) relax or completely remove the restrictions.

From the evidence and arguments for the restrictions there is no reason for relaxing or removing the current restrictions. The media’s attitude towards the Werther effect and the possibility of irresponsible journalism means that it would not be prudent to remove the current restrictions outright. If anything, restrictions and caution should be extended to attempted suicides and suicides committed overseas. While this does not fit within the jurisdiction of coroners, it could come within the domain of media regulatory bodies or be codified elsewhere.

In the meantime, the Government should employ a dual headed approach for the future. First, the Government should educate journalists, coroners and the public of the risk of reporting suicide. Secondly, the Chief Coroner should issue a practice note outlining the risk of permitting journalists to report particulars of a suicide. The practice note should also emphasise that the burden of proof lies with those who seek permission.132

Most media professionals are sceptical about the evidence for the

132 Walker, above n 82.

Werther effect.133 If media professionals were properly educated on the matter, they might accept the sobering fact that their reporting of a suicide could contribute to the further death of a person. The Ministry of Health and Ministry of Education should work closely with institutions teaching journalism to incorporate responsible suicide reporting into the curriculum. This should include education on the relevant studies on the Werther effect. This would better arm young journalists with the evidence on which to decide whether their articles are responsible.

The Chief Coroner has the power to issue a practice note on matters relevant to authorising suicide reporting.134 The matters in a practice note then become mandatory considerations for coroners in determining whether to authorise publication of suicide particulars.135

The Chief Coroner should issue a practice note that formally outlines the risk of copycat suicide. The default position in the Coroners Act is to restrict the reporting of individual suicides. The note should emphasise that the burden of proof is on anyone who wants to publish details about a suicide. Discharge of that burden requires either proof that the publication will not be detrimental to public safety or that the public interest in the matter outweighs the risk to public safety.136

Coroners should also more readily enforce the penalties on media outlets that report particulars of a self-inflicted death without permission. The examples provided earlier in this article show the media’s complete disregard of the safe reporting guidelines. The media likely thought they were circumventing the Coroners Act restrictions by reporting the June 2011 King’s College student death137 without using the term “suicide”. However, since there was reasonable cause to believe the death was self-inflicted, reporting the student’s name, school and the location of his death was in breach of the Act. Such reporting should be deterred through more frequent application of the penalty provisions.

133 Collings and Kemp, above n 43, at 246.

134 Coroners Act 2006, s 132(3)(a).

135 Section 71(4)(b).

136 The latter disjunct is based upon the Chief Coroner’s own interpretation of s 71(3).

137 “Kings College in mourning after student’s death”, above n 112.

Despite the risk of copycat suicides, there is growing evidence that the media can play a positive role in preventing suicide. A recent Austrian study has shown that some methods of reporting suicide can reduce the rate of suicide.138 The study found correlation between news articles on people who had adopted coping strategies other than suicide in adverse situations and a reduction in suicide rates. 139 These methods of reporting should be encouraged in guidelines and journalism training. Furthermore, as the body of evidence for beneficial (or at least non- harmful) suicide reporting grows, Parliament could relax the restrictions in line with the evidence.


The media continue to put forward fallacious arguments for removing the current restrictions on reporting suicide. Contrary to these arguments, the body of evidence on copycat suicide supports Parliament’s decision to retain the restrictions. The biggest downfall of the media’s position is their reluctance to accept the evidence. The media can play a role in reducing our suicide rate. However, before this can happen, they must accept that safe and effective suicide reporting should be grounded in science, evidence and rational argument.

138 Thomas Niederkrotenthaler and others “Role of media reports in completed and prevented suicide: Werther v Papageno effects” (2010) 197

British Journal of Psychiatry 234.

139 At 241.

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