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Research release: Views and attitudes when reporting and communicating about suicide

13 December 2016

Today, new research has been released that examines attitudes towards the reporting and professional communication about suicide held by media professionals, public relations professionals and students in Australia.

The three summary reports have been developed from data that was collected as part of a PhD study supported by staff at the Hunter Institute of Mental Health working on the Mindframe National Media Initiative.

The reports have been released to share key outcomes that will guide immediate and future planning for the Mindframe program in Australia. 

Jaelea Skehan, the Director of the Hunter Institute of Mental Health and PhD student completing the research said the findings would help guide how we work with and support the professional communicators who are now an integral part of our suicide prevention work in Australia.

“While there has been extensive international research examining the relationship between news reporting of suicide and suicidal behaviour, forming the basis of guidelines for reporting suicide in over 30 countries, there has been little research examining how these guidelines are received or used,” she said.

“In Australia, we have a dynamic strategy, as part of the Mindframe National Media Initiative, to engage and partner with media professionals, journalism and public relations students, and other related sectors such as the mental health and suicide prevention sectors, police and courts.

“If we are to build successful and sustained partnerships, it is important to not only understand the research that underpins an initiative like Mindframe, but also how those it targets understand and apply that evidence, and the factors that might influence that application.

“Suicide is an issue that affects many people in our community, and journalism and public relations professionals are no exception, with over three quarters of professionals surveyed knowing someone who died by suicide”, said Ms Skehan.

The current research is the first to examine the views and attitudes of media professionals, public relations professionals and students towards recommendation for reporting or communicating about suicide and the factors that may influence these views and attitudes – including personal attitudes towards suicide, personal and professional exposure to suicide, and exposure to the Mindframe Initiative in Australia.

“If we are to build successful and sustained partnerships, it is important to not only understand the research that underpins an initiative like Mindframe, but also how those it targets understand and apply that evidence, and the factors that might influence that application."

Jaelea Skehan, Director, Hunter Institute of Mental Health

Fairfax Media's Newcastle/Hunter group managing editor and Mindframe advisory group member Chad Watson welcomed the findings of this research, stating that the impact of suicide, and how it is handled in and presented by the media, should not be underestimated.

"It's one thing to have recommendations for reporting on suicide but it's another for journalists to know about them, let alone acknowledge them and follow them.

"It was particularly sobering to note that more than three quarters of the journalists involved in this research had known someone who died by suicide," he said.

Dr Johan Lidberg, Vice President of the Journalism Education Research Association of Australia, said that the results clearly show how far we have come in raising awareness of the issues of mental health and suicide in Australia.

“The survey results demonstrate that Mindframe's collaboration with universities and journalism programs across the country does make a difference in terms of making future journalism and other communication professionals aware of the unique challenges connected to communicating about mental illness and suicide,” Dr Lidberg said.

While there are over 30 countries with guidelines for reporting suicide, and some limited research about use of these guidelines by journalists, there has been almost no research conducted with public relations and communication professionals.

Public Relations Institute of Australia (PRIA) President, Jenny Muir welcomed this world first research.

“The Public Relations Institute of Australia is committed to supporting public relations and communication professionals in their ability to promote and support awareness of mental illness and suicide, as well as raising awareness of self-care by professionals.

“These issues and many others affect professional communicators and I urge all our PRIA members to use the coming holidays to heal thyself and take stock of their own wellbeing,” she said.

A total of 262 media professionals, 290 public relations and communication professionals and 206 students studying either journalism or public relations in Australia completed one of four online surveys to form the information detailed in the three separate summary reports being released today.

Jaelea Skehan said that the research would be further analysed and submitted for peer-review and publication, with results used to guide immediate plans for the Mindframe Initiative in Australia.

“The findings from the surveys will help inform immediate priorities and improvement to the Hunter Institute’s Mindframe Initiative to ensure the education and training program remains relevant and fit for purpose across these industries.

“The research shows a need for continued work to change the language we use around suicide, to better understand the impact of digital communication and to better support journalists and professional communicators who are exposed both personally and professionally to suicide,” she said.

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