B.M.REYNOLDS AGAINST THE SOUTHLAND TIMES.

Case Number: 758

Council Meeting: October 1999

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Southland Times

Ruling Categories: Suicide Reports

A complaint by B.M.Reynolds of Gore against the Southland Times has not been upheld by the New Zealand Press Council.
Reynolds complained about the publication in full in the Southland Times of a question given to Gore High School fifth form students, asking them to calculate the probability that a man contemplating suicide kills himself. The question in a probability solving exercise was roundly condemned by parents and the school's rector, and this was reported by the Southland Times on June 18 under the headline "Suicide quiz angers".
The question was quoted in full in this story, and used as a graphic in the form of a tear-out sheet from the question paper. At the risk of giving more offence, but because it is germane to understanding this complaint, it is useful to quote the question in full, as the newspaper did: "A man contemplating suicide has the choice of a pistol or a rope. One of the 6 chambers of the pistol is empty and he is only going to fire the pistol once. The chance that he is too heavy for the rope and that it snaps before he hangs himself is 0.2. If the chance that he chooses the pistol is 0.6, find the probability that he kills himself."

The rector was quoted as saying he found the question "totally offensive and unacceptable", the Education Ministry curriculum senior manager was quoted as saying the teacher at Gore High School who wrote the question "got it wrong", and the Health Ministry suicide prevention strategy project manager in Wellington and angry parents were reported expressing serious concerns.

This thorough canvassing of opinion in the newspaper's first story, which showed the publication's own concern, was followed up in the next day's paper, Saturday June 19, to explore the unanswered questions -- among them, where did the teacher get the material for the question about the probability of a suicide (from an old textbook, the headline revealed, and this was then equally condemned). This revelation of the existence of the textbook should have commended the newspaper story to readers. The probability question was repeated in full in this story. The Minister of Education was quoted, and revealed that a teacher had been disciplined, and a second story said the school would carry out a full investigation,

At this point B M Reynolds, an admitted casual buyer of the Southland Times, saw the June 19 stories and wrote to the editor to say it was incomprehensible that the newspaper considered it appropriate to publish in full the question at the heart of the complaint to Gore High School. B M Reynolds did not wish to enter into public correspondence but to decide whether a formal complaint to the Press Council was appropriate. It is worth pointing out that public or private correspondence with an editor is the necessary process to test the serious nature of concerns about an issue, and the Press Council complaints procedure is for resolving unsatisfactory results at the end of this process, not at the beginning of it.

The editor defended the newsworthiness and public interest nature of the story and said the decision to publish the questions in full (presumably the same question in two stories) was made after careful consideration, so the parents could be aware of what exactly the complaint was about. He also cited the Southland Times readership as more mature than the fifth formers.

B M Reynolds was not impressed with these arguments, finding the articles negative and critical, bordering on the sensational, nor satisfied by associate editor Helen O'Callaghan's careful response. In the editor's absence, she cited the concern of the coroners and interested groups to bring suicide into the public arena with the aim of prevention, and outlined the awareness of the Southland Times to have care and responsibility when dealing with stories relating to youth suicide. The editorial run at the time was by turns outraged, condemnatory, questioning of the flawed judgment involved, and philosophically alert and concerned about youth suicide, teenagers and teenage angst.

The nub of this complaint is whether the question at issue about the probability of a suicide should have been published in the newspaper in full. In all the stories published, cited in some detail here to give the broad picture, the newspaper applied normally sound editorial judgment. It was an appalling question to be published first in a textbook, and then in a question paper. But the reasons for the anger and outrage would not have been apparent if the paper had not revealed how appalling this whole question was. In the context of the newspaper, it was less shocking than when baldly presented to students without any safety net of debate or discussion.

The newspaper could have reported the comments of those upset without the actual words complained of, but the readers would not have been able to judge clearly for themselves. It is surely an axiom of press freedom that all readers have a right to be fully informed, not just those close to a story. B M Reynolds says newspapers do not report offensive language or racial abuse in detail, but that could come close to repeating the offence. Discussion of suicide, which is different from reporting a suicide as governed by the Coroners Act, is not in the same category.

The days are gone when newspapers had to be coy about some of the deeper and more sensitive social issues. The climate of what is acceptable is much more open and newspapers have an important social role to reflect their readers' growing maturity and desire for clear facts. In the case of the tragic problem of suicide, the press has played a leading role in bringing this topic to the public arena where attention is being devoted to finding answers. Suppression of information or detail is antagonistic to this healthy examination. Blaming the messenger for causing or worsening the problem, whose basic causes must be sought elsewhere, fails to recognise the important and cleansing nature of the blaze of publicity being focused on the darker side of New Zealand life.

Context is all in contentious issues, and for this reason it is a shame that B M Reynolds did not see the reportage of the wide-ranging, critical and damning opinion which accompanied the publication of the question in the first story, nor sight the Southland Times's disapproving editorial. In this respect, the newspaper was more thorough than sensational. Anyone reading the full wording of the question in issue in this setting should have been reassured by the judgments passed on the contentious matter.

B M Reynolds quotes the Ministry of Health's fear that publicity surrounding youth suicide will create copycat suicides, as a reason for avoiding too much detail. Even evidence for that belief can be challenged by the positive moves springing from press reports about these tragedies today. But this was not the report of a youth suicide, nor was it a guide to suicide. It was an abhorrent question for schoolchildren, but the reportage of it was no promotion of the topic, and to print the news is

not necessarily to advocate. Experienced editors will always face the vexed question that, in the eyes of some readers, any publication of a topic is tantamount to promotion of the worst aspects of that topic. Here it was responsibly placed in an examination of the issue, reporting the origin of, and reaction to, the question.

Avoiding any detail in unpleasant topics eg the reporting of abuse cases from court, cannot be predicated on the susceptibilities of the most at-risk reader. That would run counter to serving the mass market for publications like newspapers, which would scarcely be able to cover court proceedings in that case.

However, responsible reporting of anything to do with the topic of suicide should be a concern for all media. The Ministry of Health has published a guide to the reporting and portrayal of suicide in the media as part of the New Zealand Youth Suicide Prevention Strategy. The health professionals are rightly concerned about any direct linkage there may be between either copycat or increased suicide, and reporting that has glorified it, given it celebrity status, offered suicide as a positive solution to problems or given how-to details. The strategy reporting guide offers good advice for media professionals, even those who, again with some justification, find evidence to dispute a direct causal link between stories about suicide and its many complexities, and possible effects on at-risk people, especially youth.

In the end, the best journalism will be able to treat the serious problem of suicide in our society by applying normally responsible but particularly informed editorial judgement, as the Southland Times appears to have done in this case.