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Tuesday, March 01, 2011 

Reporting on suicide.

Reporting suicides is without doubt one of the most difficult subjects to cover as a journalist. Not only is there the potential to further upset the relatives and friends of the deceased, there's also knowing where exactly to draw the line in disclosing the method used, or whether to mention it all. Where the method is unusual, this is even more hazardous: studies have shown that copycat attempts have risen dramatically in the aftermath of their portrayal in the media (PDF). Striking the right balance between the need to inform while at the same time protecting the vulnerable is always going to be fraught with dangers.

In September of last year the press was understandably interested in the apparent pact formed by Steve Lumb and Joanna Lee, who died together in a car on an industrial estate in Braintree. The two had according to police met online, and killed themselves using a relatively recently discovered method involving gas, placing warning messages on the vehicle alerting the emergency services to the potential danger of opening it without proper precautions. Where the coverage crossed over the line into sensationalism and distortion was in the presentation of the messages posted on the internet by the pair and the replies to them. The Sun claimed (and The People later followed with a highly similar report) that both Lumb and Lee had been "egged on" and actively encouraged to kill themselves by posters on the Usenet groups, something which I at the time cast significant doubt on, linking to and quoting in more detail from their threads. The next day the paper claimed that a "Doctor Death" figure had "goaded and "preyed" upon Lee, which was also more than dubious. The parents of both were however all but told that "sickos" had told them exactly what they needed to do to end their lives, despite the facts suggesting something quite different. At the same time the paper referred to the method used by a term which within a few clicks can lead directly to sites explaining it in detail.

Six months later and it seems as though the first directly linkable pact has taken place. The bodies of Jenny Spain and Mark Searle were discovered in Spain's car near Chalfont St. Peter in Bucks, with similar warning messages left on the car as in Braintree. It's also quickly been discovered that Spain had posted on a related Usenet group to the one principally used by Lumb and Lee, asking for help. The difference seems to be that at least for now the Sun's coverage has been far more staid and accurate:

Referring to a similar suicide pact, Jenny, 23, wrote: "I want to gas myself like those two people did in their car. I need to know what they used to make the lethal gas. Hope you can help."

She had two replies to her message, posted in the early hours of January 23. One suggested she tried to Google the answer. The other was from a woman asking if she spoke Spanish.

The thread is here, and is almost exactly as the Sun describes it. This is interesting because it's almost identical to what Steve Lumb posted, and he too was told to search, something the Sun portrayed then as being "egged on". Whether this will change as Spain's mother has already called for "suicide websites" to be closed down in the Evening Standard or if further messages are uncovered remains to be seen. For now at least it's a welcome progression from what went before, especially as the method has not been referred to in the same manner as it was last time.

As sad as it is to contemplate, there are some people who simply decide that they want to end their lives. While we should always be highly suspicious of the motives of those who provide such detailed instructions on the internet for those looking for a way out, and know that they can just as easily be followed by those who are only going through a bad period and act without either experiencing life properly or thinking through the full consequences of their actions, there are also those for whom such sites have given them release which they have long been looking for: as painless a death as can be achieved, and one which provides the opportunity for them to plan everything down to the last detail. Such information should however not be able to easily access, or advertised, and newspapers and the media in general should do their utmost to keep details to a minimum while also providing a space for discussion and debate on depression and mental illness. It's only through deeper understanding of just what some people do go through, and even those of us who have experienced severe depression can never truly know what anyone else has properly felt like or dealt with, that we'll ever be able to get close to a proper equilibrium of protection coupled with the right to know. Sensationalism and distortion help no one, and it has to be hoped that today's coverage is a step in the right direction.

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i don't think banning methodology will help significantly. once one has reached that particular state of mind it's just a matter of picking a 'favourite' method. if the chosen way is not available i'd go to plan B.
been close a few times but it was thoughts of the family wreckage i'd create that have always stopped me, not an absence of websites telling me how.

Well, that's it: desperate people will do desperate things and always have done regardless of the web. I've never seen active encouragement of suicide on any of these newsgroups from those who are in the same position, certainly not egging on or goading; the only ones doing anything close to that are the odd troll. Ultimately it comes down to what the person themselves does with the information, as difficult as that is to take for those left behind.

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