Suicide attempts and the public’s right to know

Worcester News front page, Tuesday, August 6

Worcester News front page, Tuesday, August 6

REPORTING on suicides and attempted suicides is fraught with difficulties for newspapers.

Guidance from the PCC Editors’ Code is limited. It says only that reports should avoid excessive detail about the method used.

Media guidelines from the Samaritans are more prescriptive, but naturally put the welfare of the subject before newspapers’ duty to inform readers about incidents in which there is a clear public interest.

This week the Worcester News was criticised in some quarters for its story about a “vulnerable” man who leapt into the river Severn from a landmark bridge  and was pulled from the water by the fire and rescue service.

  • The front page we published is pictured above.
  • We also ran a live report of the event here, and attracted some Facebook comment here (warning: some of the posts are unpleasant).
  • The Twitter exchange I had with Holly McCormack, editor of mentalmatters.co.uk is here.
  • This is the editorial leader column I wrote explaining our decision-making:

SENSATIONALIST! The word is becoming a verbal club wielded with alarming haste by critics of the Press.

And they have been swinging it vigorously for the last two days in the direction of the Worcester News.

We have angered a vociferous minority with our coverage of Monday lunchtime’s events at Worcester Bridge, where a man police described as “vulnerable” leapt into the river Severn.

Now the general policy of this newspaper is not to cover what appear to be suicide attempts. But we make exceptions when – as in this case – there is a clear public interest in doing so.

The drama drew large crowds who watched the man being pulled from the river by the fire and rescue service, and it brought traffic chaos to the city centre.

The man’s family subsequently raised important concerns about his medical treatment, which they expand upon in today’s paper.

All this made it a major news event, as well as a deeply sad story of an individual in torment.

So we covered it as comprehensively and as sensitively as we could, including contact details for the Samaritans in our reports.

As well as publishing in print, we used social media and a live reporting tool on our website that helped us inform people what was happening minute by minute.

But perhaps most contentiously we used a photograph of the man – with his appearance obscured. We did so not to sensationalise, but because he and his actions were integral to the story.

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About John Wilson

Group deputy editor of the Worcester News, Berrow's Worcester Journal, Malvern Gazette and Evesham Journalist. Journalist for more than 30 years.
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