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26 June 2012

Mail Online illustrates Eiffel Tower suicide story with video

The Samaritans guidelines are clear on the subject.

By Helen Lewis

As Leveson has gone on, the Mail’s attitude to it has hardened, with the mood now very much being that a toughened up PCC is all that’s needed. But let’s look at a case where the PCC has explicit guidance, and how far the newspaper’s website has obeyed it.

“Horror as tourist climbs the Eiffel Tower and then jumps to his death,” blares a headline on the Mail Online website this morning.

Suicide is a sensitive and difficult topic for the media to cover — the PCC code acknowledges there is a public interest in newsworthy deaths, but explicitly states that:

When reporting suicide, care should be taken to avoid excessive detail about the method used.

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As a 2009 ruling stated, “The purpose of this Clause is to prevent the publication of unnecessary information which might encourage ‘copycat’ suicides.”

In addition, the PCC points journalists towards the Samiritans reporting guidelines on the subject. These state:

1. Avoid explicit or technical details of suicide in reports. Providing details of the mechanism and procedure used to carry out a suicide may lead to the imitation of suicidal behaviour by other people at risk.

and:

6. Avoid labelling places as suicide ‘hotspots’. Advertising such locations provides detail about methods of suicide and may play a part in drawing more people to that location. and 10. Consider the timing. The coincidental deaths by suicide of two or more people make the story more topical and newsworthy, but additional care is required in the reporting of ‘another suicide, just days after…’, which might imply a connection.

The full media guidelines have a useful section on images:

• Photographs and footage of the scene, location and method of suicide can lead to imitative action by people who are vulnerable. 

• Avoid the use of dramatic photographs or images related to the suicide. For example photographs of people standing on ledges about to jump or people falling to their deaths.

The reason these guidelines were issued, as Jeremy Paxman puts it in the foreword, were because “Reporting details that can seem inconsequential and merely factual to some audiences can have a profoundly negative effect on others who might be more emotionally vulnerable”.

And here is the Mail Online’s story:

Security was stepped up around the Eiffel Tower today after an English-speaking man climbed to the top and then jumped to his death. […] Eerily, a woman attempted a copycat suicide on Monday morning, but that failed when the authorities intervened by helicopter before she had got high enough to hurt herself.

There is then more detail about the two people, including the heights they reached, accompanied by a sidebar on how many people try to throw themselves off the Tower every year.

This is all slightly troubling, but here is the unbelievable bit. At the end of the story, there is a YouTube video embedded of Pathe News Footage of a man who believed he could fly. He jumped from the Tower to his death. The video shows him on the ledge, on his descent, the impact, and being carried away from the scene, dead. 

It is hard to think of a less appropriate accompaniment to a news story about suicide.

I expect that this video will quickly disappear from the Mail Online (as the story about Nicole Kidman’s four-year-old’s “lithe limbs” was changed within about an hour of a Twitter storm beginning to brew about it). But is this really any way to regulate the press? 

UPDATE 11.40am, 26 June: The video has now been removed.