By Anna Bryan
It’s sad to admit, but we are currently living in a time of intense trauma. Every day, we’re bombarded with upsetting news, from Covid-19 deaths to natural disasters, local suicides to international terrorism. Even as a student, I find the constant negative news cycle difficult to deal with, and I worry that when I become a journalist, the bombardment of bad news will only become more severe – because I’ll be writing it.
Dr Sallyanne Duncan is the programme director for my Digital Journalism masters at Strathclyde. She specialises in the reporting of bad news and she recently produced a ‘Suicide Reporting Toolkit’ for journalists and educators. I asked her for advice on how best to report on these difficult subjects.
First of all, could you tell us about your research into trauma, suicide and bereavement? What first made you interested in this area of study?
I did a postgraduate diploma at Cardiff University a few decades ago. When I did that course, we didn’t concentrate at all on ethics and weren’t taught how to do what was known as the ‘death knock’. I was conscious that I had to get my reporting right, but I didn’t know what was right.
When I became a reporter, I felt really unprepared, and I was quite anxious about doing reporting on death. I tried to find if there was anything written about it, so I could get some advice. But when I started to look into the subject, I found very little.
So, I decided to research it myself and started a PhD, with a thesis on how journalists report on death and how they can improve. I published some journal articles based on my research, which got a little bit of publicity. The Scottish Co-ordinator of the NUJ, Paul Holleran saw these articles and contacted me as he was updating the NUJ’s guidelines on the reporting of suicide. We met up for a chat and before I knew it, I had been persuaded to write the guidelines! After those were published, Ann Luce at Bournemouth University got in touch with me, and since then we’ve been working together on researching suicide reporting.
Before becoming an academic, you worked as a reporter at the Hamilton Advertiser – a Scottish local paper. What was it like working so closely with the community? Did this make it more difficult when reporting on tragic events?
I was more aware that I had to get things right, but my problem was that I didn’t know what was right as there wasn’t much in the way of guidelines, especially not for suicide reporting. Those things weren’t discussed in the newsroom so it often came down to just being a good human being, and trying to put myself in the shoes of the bereaved.
A survey you carried out in 2019 found that nearly three out of four UK journalism students aren’t taught about suicide reporting during their time at university. Do you think it’s important that more journalism students are taught how to responsibly report suicide?
I think it’s absolutely imperative – it’s as important as learning how to report on crime or politics. It’s one of the most difficult tasks you’ll ever do as a reporter. If you can figure out a way to report suicide, then you can apply that knowledge to so many other types of stories – especially highly sensitive stories or stories covering trauma.
Tell us about the Suicide Reporting Toolkit. How did it come about and what is it?
Ann (Luce) and I knew, both from academic research and anecdotally, that journalists don’t look at the guidelines. There are far too many, and they just don’t have the time to study them. We wanted to make a resource for journalists that was easier and all in one place, so we devised a toolkit. It tells you how to report sensitively and explains the correct approach to reporting suicide. We embedded the advice from the guidelines into a storytelling process, which culminates in six questions for reporters to ask themselves throughout the process of reporting on suicide. There are also lesson plans for educators, sections on self-care, and countless more resources.
Many of the readers of the Byline Club are aspiring journalists who may one day have to report on suicide. It’s quite a daunting subject, so what is the main piece of advice you would give to them to ensure they handle the subject sensitively and responsibly?
Firstly, don’t be afraid of upsetting people – most bereaved people will recognise that you’re a young reporter and will be forgiving. Also, try and walk in the shoes of the person you are reporting on, and their families.
I’d also advise student journalists to look at the Suicide Reporting Toolkit and run through the standard of moderation.
I imagine that spending so much of your time researching into the reporting of suicide and trauma might negatively impact your own mental health. How do you maintain your own wellbeing? Any advice for readers who might find this kind of reporting particularly taxing?
There are times when doing this kind of research really gets to you. Sometimes you just have to step back and go do something completely different.
For young reporters covering suicide, there’s a section on the Suicide Reporting Toolkit for addressing self-care. You need to look after yourself. Day-to-day, try and get up from your laptop and get a change of scenery – get out of the house and go for a walk. Have something in your routine that takes you away from work and that you enjoy.
Accept that you’re going to have difficulties and that it’s impossible to get things right – don’t beat yourself up if you make mistakes, but learn from them and move forward.
Find Sallyanne’s Suicide Reporting Toolkit here: https://www.suicidereportingtoolkit.com/
If you are struggling with your mental health, you can call the Samaritans for free on 116 123.