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Killing the messenger

By Steven | August 29, 2010

There’s much to ponder in James Hollings’ thoughtful opinion piece on suicide reporting in this week’s Sunday Star-Times. Why are NZ’s suicide statistics so high, though our reporting restrictions are so tight? How convincing is the social science research suggesting media reports can lead to copycat suicides? Is important reporting being headed off by the gag around things that look like suicides? Did the government really think hard enough about the Bill of Rights before imposing this ban?

But I think he goes too far in saying this:

We should be clear that this censorship is in fact self-censorship.

Hollings’ theory is that the restrictions in the Coroners Act do not actually stop the media from reporting that a death is (or may be) a suicide. I think he’s wrong.

Here’s the wording of the law:

(1) No person may, without a coroner’s authority, make public any particular relating to the manner in which a death occurred if—

(a) the death occurred in New Zealand after the commencement of this section; and

(b) there is reasonable cause to believe the death was self-inflicted; and

(c) no inquiry into the death has been completed.

(2) If a coroner has found a death to be self-inflicted, no person may, without a coroner’s authority or permission under section 72, make public a particular of the death other than—

(a) the name, address, and occupation of the person concerned; and

(b) the fact that the coroner has found the death to be self-inflicted.

(3) The only grounds on which a coroner may under this section authorise the making public of particulars of the death (other than those specified in subsection (2)(a) and (b)) are that the making public of particulars of that kind is unlikely to be detrimental to public safety.

(4) In determining whether the grounds specified in subsection (3) are made out, a coroner must have regard to—

(a) the characteristics of the person who is, or is suspected to be, the dead person concerned; and

(b) matters specified in any relevant practice notes issued under section 132 by the chief coroner; and

(c) any other matters the coroner considers relevant.

Hollings has a point: the wording of this section is ambiguous. What’s a “particular relating to the manner in which a death occurred”? Might it only include descriptions of the method used to commit suicide - jumped off a building, shot to the head, car-in-garage, etc? That would still leave the media free to report that it was - or may have been - a suicide. Such an interpretation may also be supported by the Bill of Rights, which requires statutes to be read consistently with rights such as free speech if possible. Burrows and Cheer in the leading text Media Law in NZ also note the ambiguity.

My first point: just because it’s ambiguous, that doesn’t mean everyone is self-censoring. There’s no guarantee that a court would adopt this interpretation. Burrows and Cheer certainly don’t say so.

My second point: I don’t think a court would adopt this interpretation. For a start, courts try to interpret statutes to fulfil the policy they’re aiming at. The policy here is to protect the privacy of families (something Hollings doesn’t mention), and to preserve public safety. I don’t know what the social science evidence says about copycat suicides where it’s only the fact of the suicide that’s reported and not the method, but I’m guessing that the reporting of (for example) celebrity suicides such as that of Kurt Cobain may produce more deaths even by those who don’t copy (or know of) the methods.

Both of these purposes are better advanced by a wider reading of the section than a narrow one. That’s likely to strongly influence a court.

Courts also construe sections against their context. When the coroner’s inquest is completed (but not before then), the Act lets the media report a finding that the death was self-inflicted. It seems that Parliament does not want this information to come out (without the consent of the coroner) until the inquest is over. But under Hollings’ interpretation, the media would be free to report the fact of suicide all the way through the inquest. This rather makes the second restriction a bit redundant.

There are arguments to the contrary. Hollings may argue that there’s a difference between the phrases in subsection (1) “any particular relating to the manner in which a death occurred” (which doesn’t include reporting that it’s a suicide) and subsection (2) “a particular of the death” (which does). That makes some sense to me, but I don’t think it overcomes the two arguments above. 

Then there’s the Bill of Rights. The starting point for that argument is what the ordinary meaning of the section is. If I’m right, it’s the wide one. The next question is whether that’s demonstrably justified. That’s a complicated question, but I suspect a court would find that it is and stop there. The court would find some support in the (rather inadequate, I think) official vet on the Coroner’s Bill.

The upshot is that the section is most likely to be interpreted to include any mention of suicide, which rather undermines Hollings’ contention that the media’s interpretation of the section is … self-inflicted.

I think the really interesting issues here are:

1. Does the media’s habit of saying, as Hollings points out, that “the police are not seeking anyone in connection with the incident” break this law, by tacitly telling everyone it’s a suicide?

2. How often does the media seek consent from coroners to report details of suicides? How often is this granted and refused? That’s where I think the action in this section is. If coroners are unreasonably denying consent, then the mechanism that is put in the legislation to uphold free speech has broken down.

Topics: Journalism and criminal law, NZ Bill of Rights Act |

9 Responses to “Killing the messenger”

  1. Twitter Trackbacks for Killing the messenger | Media Law Journal [medialawjournal.co.nz] on Topsy.com Says:
    August 29th, 2010 at 7:05 pm

    […] Killing the messenger | Media Law Journal medialawjournal.co.nz/?p=387 – view page – cached There’s much to ponder in James Hollings’ thoughtful opinion piece on suicide reporting in this week’s Sunday Star-Times. Why are NZ’s suicide statistics so high, though our reporting restrictions are so tight? How convincing is the social science research suggesting media reports can lead to copycat suicides? Is important reporting being headed off by the gag around things that look… Read moreThere’s much to ponder in James Hollings’ thoughtful opinion piece on suicide reporting in this week’s Sunday Star-Times. Why are NZ’s suicide statistics so high, though our reporting restrictions are so tight? How convincing is the social science research suggesting media reports can lead to copycat suicides? Is important reporting being headed off by the gag around things that look like suicides? Did the government really think hard enough about the Bill of Rights before imposing this ban? View page Tweets about this link […]

  2. James Says:
    August 31st, 2010 at 3:38 pm

    Do media use the catchphrase only for suicide or do they use it in connection with deaths that are considered accidental at the time of reporting?
    Hollins article is certainly food for thought especially the excerpt “If I had had to ask permission every time, without any solid facts to go on would the coroner have been always helpful”. The publishing of articles alleging negligence leading to death without solid facts is concerning, as is the alternative of such matters being swept under the carpet without scrutiny.
    Good on Hollins for asking the tough questions although I’m still very uncertain. The validity of research suggesting that suicide reporting increases suicide occurrence seems one key factor in whether this restriction is demonstrably justified. Getting the balance right in laying down a general rule in such a delicate area would be very tough. A case-by-case assessment seems to be the only other way. Is the Coroner the right person to be making this assessment?

  3. ross Says:
    September 2nd, 2010 at 8:52 am

    The media also report that there were “no suspicious circumstances” surrounding a death. That is also code for suicide. Is that against the law? I wouldn’t have thought so - the alternative would be non-reporting. The law says that “No person may…make public any particular relating to the manner in which a death occurred…”. Would a media outlet come under the defintion of “person”?

  4. Steven Says:
    September 2nd, 2010 at 10:28 am

    >> Would a media outlet come under the defintion of “person”?

    Yes, Ross, they would. And it seems likely that non-reporting this particular fact is exactly what that provision is aimed at, in order to prevent copycat suicides, which there’s plenty of evidence of.

  5. ross Says:
    September 2nd, 2010 at 7:02 pm

    Steven,

    You say that you “don’t know what the social science evidence says about copycat suicides where it’s only the fact of the suicide that’s reported and not the method”. Then you say there’s plenty of evidence that non-reporting of suicide prevents copycat suicides. That’s surely a contradiction.

    For what it’s worth, I would like to see the media reporting on suicides honestly and openly without hiding behind silly euphemisms. Might it lead to copycat suicides? Possibly but it might also lead to fewer suicides. As long as the media don’t glamorise suicide - and I’d like to think the media would take its responsibilites seriously on this matter - I’m all in favour of open and honest reporting. I note that the Samaritans deal with people who are or may be suicidal. One of the questions they ask of callers is: “Do you feel suicidal?” I think that’s an important question.

  6. Steven Says:
    September 2nd, 2010 at 7:59 pm

    A contradiction? Read it more carefully. I know two things. One: there is lots of evidence that reporting of suicide leads to copycat suicides. (There’s also social science evidence that questions those findings). Two: I don’t know what that evidence says about whether the copycat effect still applies when the fact of suicide is reported but not the method.

  7. ross Says:
    September 4th, 2010 at 8:44 am

    This article suggests that there is evidence that when the method of suicide is mentioned, the risk of copycat suicide is increased. The Samaritans argue that there is nothing wrong with honest reporting as long as suicide is not romanticised or glamourised. But sweeping the issue under the carpet is not the way to go.

    http://www.independent.co.uk/news/media/the-big-question-should-the-media-stop-reporting-the-suicides-in-and-around-bridgend-785551.html

  8. Steven Says:
    September 4th, 2010 at 11:52 am

    That article says that the “biggest risk” is where the method is portrayed. It doesn’t say there’s no significant risk where it’s not. I agree that any restrictions on reporting such an important issue must be convincingly justified, and that looking at the evidence must be the first port of call. But I think glib statements about “sweeping the issue under the carpet” (which our law doesn’t do, since it allows general discussions on suicide) don’t help matters much.

  9. Alice Says:
    October 25th, 2010 at 11:11 pm

    An article in Huffingtonpost, looking at the recent rash of gay teen suicides in the US, suggests that it isn’t that more teens commit suicide after learning about deaths through the media, but that the media looks for, and reports on suicides more frequently than they usually would, making it look like there has been an increase.

    There is no doubt that there is evidence out there which can show that copy-cat suicides are an issue. But there is also evidence supporting the idea that Grand Theft Auto drives kids to shoot up schools - with the right stats and the right quotes you can create whatever evidence you want, within reason.

    In reaction to the gay teen suicides, sex columnist, Dan Savage, concluded that talking about the issues that lead to the incredibly sad deaths was much more constructive than pretending they hadn’t happened. He set up the “it gets better project” which encourages people to submit videos to youtube openly talking about bullying and how things get better once you leave high school. (Even Obama has contributed http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HzcAR6yQhF8.)

    The danger can’t lie in reporting that a life has been taken, but rather, in journalism which concentrates on the what’s and how’s, while ignoring the why’s.

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