To tell or not to tell?

28Apr10

Last week I attended an evening seminar on health journalism organised by the Patient Information Forum and held at the Trust. Jo Brodie’s written a decent summary of the proceedings on her blog.

The presentations were interesting, though largely of a familiar ilk: both press officers and journalists are partially at fault, fitting responsible health information with news values is a difficult task, the public needs to be more critical of what they read etc. etc.

However, one point got me thinking. Ginny Barbour, Chief Editor of the journal PLoS Medicine, gave a talk about how scientists can help journalists and how journal editors work to get their stories picked up by the press. Usually, she said, they encourage researchers to write more easily understandable titles and abstracts, so that non-specialists can make sense of them. But in one slide she gave the example of a paper they received on suicides in Taiwan. This paper found that media coverage of charcoal-burning suicides was fueling a steep rise in Taiwanese suicides.

Among the authors recommendations are “introducing and enforcing guidelines on media reporting” to deal with the problem. In keeping with this, Barbour and colleagues were happy to stick with the wordy title, ‘The Evolution of Charcoal-burning Suicide in Taiwan: A spatial and temporal analysis’, rather than push for a change (admittedly, the title and abstract aren’t actually that bad for this paper). Barbour argued that in this case it was of more benefit to society for the paper not to be covered in the media. And her team patted themselves on the back when, sure enough, the paper received zero press coverage.

I can certainly see their point of view, and it’s not as if this is an uncommon thing — there are guidelines on reporting suicides in many countries for the same reasons. However, I had to ask myself if it is really in the interest of press freedom not to report findings such as these, particularly if those results could be useful to others. Would knowledge of these results raise awareness and help policymakers prevent future suicides? Or would it give people ideas on how to kill themselves, as they feared?

It reminded me of something an African colleague said to me at a recent meeting. She mentioned how some of her researchers (she’s a communications officer) were unwilling to publicise a paper containing some quite important findings about HIV in the men who have sex with men (MSM) community. The reason? Homophobic activists had trashed one of their labs a few weeks earlier and the scientists were afraid of a repeat. But what is the point of doing such important research if you don’t tell anyone about it, or if the only people who do are those who stumble across your paper in a literature review years after?

This isn’t the same as reporting suicides of course, but it got me thinking about the responsibility to report scientific findings and when social responsibilities, individual responsibilities and journalistic responsibilities clash. Thoughts?



One Response to “To tell or not to tell?”

  1. 1 Louise Crane

    This makes me think of my old-fashioned mother’s very scary views on sex education. She believes that sex education should be banned, because by telling children and teenagers about sex, you make them aware of it, put “ideas in their heads” and thus create a society in which underage sex occurs.

    I personally disagree with this opinion and I’m sure many others do too. In this example, education is fundamentally important. When underage individuals make discoveries about sex through a variety of media, and peer relationships, it is important to inform them of the facts so they can make the right choices and decisions.

    I’m realise this is not directly relevant to suicide because sex is something that almost all people will have experience with in their lives, whereas suicide is mercifully more rare, furthermore, education in schools and media coverage are very different tools. However, I’m not sure that non-reporting of information about suicide will impact total number of suicides (though method of suicide, probably). It seem that if I believe mother’s opinion to be flawed, then this idea is flawed too.

    If you want to have sex, you’ll do it; if you want to die, you’ll find a way. Perhaps we need to consider the other effects of reporting about suicide: what about those who have lost someone to suicide, who can’t understand what’s happened and feel isolated? A report about a similar case could make them feel less alone. The suicide of a relative or close friend may bring an individual to desire a similar end to their life, but an emotive article could remind them of the pain of loss they felt, and prevent them from inflicting the same pain on the rest of their family and friends.

    We need to consider not whether to report or to ignore suicide, but how to report it in the most effective and constructive manner in order to save lives that are yet to be lost.


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