April 23, 2024

Suicide and journalistic ethics

Hi there,

The Age, a leading Melbourne newspaper, recently ran several articles chronicling a local woman’s decision to take her own life. It was not for any particular reason – 83-year-old Beverley Broadbent just thought it would be better to go while she was still mentally alert and physically active.

Health editor Julia Medew interviewed her and arranged to report how she had come to her decision and why rational old age suicide was a good idea. Under the headline “Suicide a calm and beautiful ending, says witness,” Medew described how a mysterious woman named Amanda accompanied her as she swallowed a lethal dose of Nembutal on the evening of February 11.

Miss Broadbent’s death raises a number of bioethical issues. But it also ought to spark a discussion about Medew’s journalistic ethics. In the first place, a journalist is first of all a human being. Didn’t Medew have a moral obligation to dissuade a relatively healthy woman from committing suicide?

Second, far from being an objective report, Medew’s articles were an unpaid advertorial for Exit International, the euthanasia lobby group headed by Dr Philip Nitschke. In an unsubtle bit of product placement, she even mentioned Nitschke’s “peaceful pill”.

Third, guidelines issued by the World Health Organization about reporting suicides counsel journalists to “Avoid language which sensationalizes or normalizes suicide, or presents it as a solution to problems”. Medew’s series of articles did all three.

And finally, in a bit of face-saving cognitive dissonance, The Age placed the following sentence at the foot of each article: “For help or information visit beyondblue.org.au, call Suicide Helpline Victoria on 1300 651 251, or Lifeline on 131 114.” That’s what I call having your cake and eating it too: painting a rosy picture of one woman’s suicide and then darkly warning everyone else of its dangers. It’s hardly convincing.

The WHO warns that media reporting of suicide can lead to copycat suicides. “It varies as a function of time, peaking within the first three days and levelling off by about two weeks, but sometimes lasting longer. It is related to the amount and prominence of coverage, with repeated coverage and ‘high impact’ stories being most strongly associated with imitative behaviours.” I wonder if The Age will investigate whether or not its irresponsible reporting has caused more deaths. 


Michael Cook
The rational suicide of Beverley Broadbent