Speaking to the Society of Editor’s Annual Conference in London, Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu told media industry representatives that he wants to emulate the relationship they have with the Samaritans in reporting suicide – an approach he believes could prevent media coverage of terrorism from inadvertently amplifying the threat.
In the wake of the Christchurch attack in New Zealand (NZ), Assistant Commissioner Basu published an open letter to the UK media asking for greater care in the reporting of terrorism, in part influenced by NZ Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s decision not to publicise the name of the attacker.
Samaritans and the World Health Organisation report substantial evidence showing the links between the media depiction of suicide and the spread of the behaviour among vulnerable people – known as suicide contagion.
Assistant Commissioner Basu believes the same theory could be applied for the reporting of terrorism and called for the UK’s media outlets to work together with policing and security experts to try and reduce the threat.
“The risk of influencing suicides significantly increases if reports include descriptions of suicide methods; if the story is placed prominently, and if the coverage is extensive or sensationalised,” he said.
“The positive relationship between Samaritans campaigners and the media has helped shape how suicide is reported and has almost certainly saved lives.”
Mr Basu also revealed that he has asked The Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) – the world’s oldest independent think tank on international defence and security – to analyse academic research into social contagion theory and test the concept that media reporting of terrorist events could encourage the spread of behaviour among like-minded individuals.
He added: “RUSI’s emerging findings suggest that how journalists frame their reports and the language they choose can have an impact.”
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