Discouraging Suicide: The Media’s Responsibility

JEERS TO ABS-CBN 2, GMA-7, Solar TV, TV5, and the Manila Bulletin for their careless reporting of a suicide at the Metro Rail Transit (MRT) Guadalupe station last May 8.

The television news programs used MRT CCTV or close circuit television footage of the actual suicide in reporting the event. In their May 8 broadcasts, both Solar TV’s Solar Network News and ABS-CBN 2’s TV Patrol showed the footage from the MRT management. The video was darkened a bit but the method and location of the suicide could still be seen. TV Patrol even ran the video at the beginning of its broadcast.

The Center for Media Freedom & Responsibility has pointed out in the past that reporting suicide requires the greatest care.

“Details of the method or the location a suicide victim uses may lead to copycat suicides. A reporter should not risk providing another person considering suicide with the details of how it can be achieved,” says the World Health Organization in its suicide prevention guidelines for media professionals reporting on suicide.

Solar Network News reported that “An unidentified man, 20-30 years old, wearing a light blue shirt and dark colored shorts, threw himself in front of a speeding MRT coach. The man was dragged 30-40 meters by the train, and his body got stuck underneath the two coaches.”

TV Patrol also showed the video from the Metro Manila Development Authority and said: “Nakaipit pa sa gulong ng tren ang bahagi ng katawan ng lalakeng hindi pa nakikilala (The unknown victim was still pinned under the train wheels).”

To their credit, neither TV5’s AKSYON nor GMA-7’s 24 Oras ran the CCTV footage, but they still described how the incident happened.

The World Health Organization warns that “suicide coverage is an opportunity to provide the public with information and resources that could save lives.” This can be achieved through “highlighting alternatives to suicide, providing information on help lines and community resources, and publicizing risk indicators and warning signs.”

However, the reporters did not even look for experts who could have provided the public with vital information about suicide such as its risk indicators and warning signs, what can be done to prevent suicide, and where people contemplating suicide can get help. Instead, they ran the MRT CCTV video and reported what happened without being aware of the impact that such stories may have on the viewers, the people at risk of committing suicide, or those who have tried to commit suicide.

Adding to the flawed media coverage of the suicide, a DZMM Teleradyo reporter said, “Dahil nakaladkad ang biktima ay medyo lumabas yung internal organs nitong biktima (The victim’s internal organs were exposed because he was dragged by the train).” The anchor even commented on the report and said, “Pwede bang uminom na lang ng lason? (Can one just use poison?),” thus not only making light of suicide, but also suggesting another suicide method.

Some newspapers were also careless in their reportage. An article in the Manila Bulletin quoted MRT general manager Al Vitangcol as saying that “Sa kasamaang palad, nadurog yung katawan ng biktima at hindi po ito magandang tanawin (Unfortunately, the victim’s body was crushed, and this wasn’t a pretty sight).”

The US Poynter Institute identifies three ethical commands—seek truth and report it as fully as possible, act independently, and minimize harm. In observance of the third principle, the Institute urges the journalist “to be compassionate, to treat sources, subjects and colleagues as human beings deserving of respect and to recognize that while reporting and gathering information may cause harm, this must be balanced by scrupulously truthful reporting.”

However, “scrupulously truthful reporting” doesn’t mean presenting all the grisly details of a certain event. The media should provide only relevant information that the public needs to know, and should avoid details that tend to sensationalize the incident.

But reporters should provide at the end of a story on suicide information about the options for seeking help, says the WHO’s suicide prevention resource for media professionals. “Listing available help sources will provide immediate avenues of support for individuals who are distressed or prompted to consider self-harm as a result of the story.”

This was not the first instance of reckless media coverage of a suicide at an MRT station. Last January 3, media also reported that “a woman tried committing suicide by jumping onto the tracks of MRT as a train approached (the) Shaw Boulevard station.”

A reporter from ABS-CBN News Channel said in his lead: “Halos maputol sa labis na pagkadurog ang paa ng di pa nakikilalang babae matapos tumalon sa mismong riles ng MRT sa Shaw Boulevard station kaninang pasado alas onse ng umaga (The legs of a still unidentified woman were nearly severed when she jumped onto the MRT Shaw Boulevard Station rails).”

An article in the Philippine Daily Inquirer also mentioned the victim’s name and address. The Inquirer wrote that the woman “survived the jump although her left leg, which was pinned beneath the train, had to be amputated.”

Last August 30 2012, the media also publicized the story of a woman who killed herself in a Light Rail Transit (LRT) station.

On its August 30 broadcast, TV Patrol showed a clear CCTV footage of the suicide and identified the woman the following day. Solar Network News also showed the video, although it was not as clear as the one shown on TV Patrol.

According to the WHO, reporters should avoid providing detailed information about the site of a completed or attempted suicide. “Particular care should be taken by media professionals not to promote such locations as suicide sites by, for example, using sensationalist language to describe them or overplaying the number of incidents occurring at them.” TV Patrol and 24 Oras reported how many suicide attempts have occurred at the LRT station.

An Inquirer article said “The 52-year-old victim, a resident of Maricaban, Pasay City, was killed on the spot at the Edsa station after her head was crushed beneath the train wheels.”

AKSYON, in its August 31 broadcast, even showed the postal identification card of the victim which had the woman’s name and address.

“Television influences suicidal behavior,” the WHO’s suicide prevention resource for media professionals points out.  “There is an increase in suicide up to 10 days after television news reports of cases of suicide. As in the printed media, highly publicized stories that appear in multiple programs on multiple channels seem to carry the greatest impact.”

The media have a significant role in raising awareness and educating the public about the complexity of suicide, and can encourage the vulnerable and those at risk of suicide to seek help instead of encouraging them to imitate the methods of, and to even use the same sites as, completed suicides.