On the surface, “respect for truth and the public’s right to information are fundamental principles of journalism” (Alliance.org.au, 2015). However, as journalists we must perform our duties whilst considering the moral implications of the news we share. Though journalists aim to communicate the truth and deliver information to the public, we must also “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” (Presscouncil.org.au, 2014). Before running a story, a journalist has to consider whether the instance is of public interest, if it is newsworthy and if it is ethically acceptable to release into the public sphere. In addition, the manner in which the story is written and presented to the public dictates whether a journalist has performed their role ethically. Whilst journalism can be viewed as a “form of writing that tells people about things that really happened” (Robertniles.com, 2007), in truth it is a much more complex entity in which success and morality are dependent on a journalist’s awareness and adherence to ethical standards and practice.
Journalists “search, disclose, record, question, entertain, suggest and remember. They inform citizens and animate democracy. They give a practical form to freedom of expression” (Alliance.org.au, 2015). As journalists we operate to ensure society has access to news of all forms. Journalists are democracy in practice in that we are the profession which performs the right of free speech. Good journalism is accurate, fair to all parties and encompasses equal representation. This includes both the content of the story and the accompanying headline. Contemporary journalists, however, must now maintain their moral diligence in the dynamic realm of online journalism, in which the story is presented to the public with an eye catching image, a tag line tailored to serve as click bait, an enticing preview and a hashtag. Though the core role of journalism is unchanged, as is what constitutes quality journalism, the environment in which journalists progresses and evolves constantly.
Factors that determine whether a story is newsworthy are “timing, significance, proximity, prominence and human interest” (Mediacollege.com, 2015). Though journalists are expected to provide society with relevant news as it happens that is of interest to the public, certain issues present ethical dilemmas to journalists. Suicide is newsworthy, however despite the fact that suicide is a publicised issue in Australian society, journalists have tended to avoid reporting on instances of suicide. This mentality of avoidance likely stems from the journalistic principle of causing no harm. Reporters, despite the fact that suicide ticks the proverbial newsworthy boxes, are cautious of reporting on suicide, fearful of the potential consequences they may face if they make mistakes.
Suicide is growing in prominence in the Australian public sphere and as such journalists must perform their role in society by informatively and respectfully communicating instances of the issue. Suicide follows the same guidelines that journalists adhere to when assessing the newsworthiness and viability of a story, with the only difference being that a journalist must exercise greater sensitivity and caution. The Australian Press Council determines that a journalist should cover a case of suicide if it is “clearly in the public interest” or “clear and informed consent has been provided by appropriate relatives or close friends” or “no appropriate authority … has requested that the report be withheld or delayed to avoid a high risk of inducing further suicides” (Presscouncil.org.au, 2011). As with any other story, a case of suicide must be in the public interest, however as is the delicacy of the issue, a journalist must seek permission from those directly impacted by the death and ensure that there is no authorised block on reporting of the story. It is evident that though suicide has been somewhat neglected by the media due to the supposed difficulty associated with covering it, that if simple measures are taken, journalists can write on suicide without fear of consequence.
Furthermore, the Australian Press Council clarifies how a journalist should approach releasing details of suicide cases, by stating that “the method and location of a suicide should not be described in detail” and that “reports should not sensationalise, glamorise or trivialise suicides” (Presscouncil.org.au, 2011). These principles ensure that a journalist does not cause harm by directing the focus of the elements of the story towards the facets of the case which makes of it public interest. By adhering to these guidelines, journalists can ensure that they report on suicide in a manner that does not offend audiences and allows them to fulfil their role as the communicators of society.
In addition to this, journalists can use their positions of prominence in society to combat suicide. Despite the common concern that publicising suicide by discussing it in the media has negative consequences, reporters can in fact through good journalism contribute to raising awareness of support networks and the abolishment of stigma surrounding suicide. By accompanying suicide related stories with “information about appropriate 24-hour crisis support services” (Presscouncil.com, 2011), journalists can utilise their ability to communicate information to the public to provide assistance to those battling mental illnesses. Discussing suicide respectfully with the inclusion of relevant methods of assistance enables journalists to fulfil their goals of communicating newsworthy information without doing harm, in fact doing a service to those in the community interested in, or affected by, mental illnesses. The Age of Enlightenment focuses on the democratic use of reason and intelligence and these notions are evident in good journalism. Good journalism ensures that the values of democracy of reason are intelligently presented to the public. Though the issue of suicide is currently culturally sensitive, consistent respectful and insightful reporting will work towards abolishing the stigma and stereotypes attached to the issue.