Reporting on suicide gets to the heart of a key journalistic principle – to show humanity in our work and respect for the audience – and this week a shocking live broadcast on national television in Thailand opened up a national debate on standards that resonates around the world.
The debate was triggered by the live broadcasting on television channels and online streaming of a university professor killing himself after a five hour long standoff involving the distraught man, police, and relatives.
Last week, university lecturer Wanchai Danaitamonut, was accused of shooting dead two colleagues, also professors, who he allegedly deemed had fake degrees. Police were reportedly alerted to Wanchai’s hideout at a local hotel and surrounded the location. For several hours his family, the police and a local student pleaded with him to give himself up as he threatened to shoot himself with a pistol.
Local and national media surrounded the area broadcasting the standoff on live television. As the cameras remained focused on him, Wanchai abruptly ended the drama by shooting himself in the head. Although some channels blurred the image of Wanchai or edited the images of the standoff, other stations broadcast the entire incident and the suicide live.
Earlier, as the drama unfolded, the Thai Association of Journalists and the National Broadcasting Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) issued warnings to media. The NBTC, the national regulator, ordered stations to stop broadcasting “forbidden” content or risk a fine or loss of broadcasting rights.
กรณีนี้ไม่ใช่เป็นเพียงเรื่องจรรยาบรรณ แต่เข้าข่ายขัดกฎหมายด้านกิจการโทรทัศน์ฯ สถานีมีความเสี่ยงจากเนื้อหาการถ่ายทอดสดที่ออกอากาศ รอรับผิดชอบ
— Supinya Klangnarong (@supinya) May 19, 2016
“This case is not only about ethics, but it’s considered a violation of laws related to television operations,” wrote Supinya Klangnarong, Commissioner of the National Telecommunication and Broadcasting Commission.
Some stations did respond and toned down their content after the warning, but others continued to stream the incident, without any form of prior editing. The Commissioner admitted the NTBC responded too slowly, but that the regulator usually responds to content that is already published.
Speaking to the BBC, Phepchai Yong, president of the Thai Broadcast Journalists Association, said: “As a veteran journalist the images that we saw violate the basic ethics – you don’t show that kind of image.
“This kind of event was new for the Thai broadcast industry, its natural for them to give the audience what they think they wanted, without thinking about the image that appears on the screen. As journalists they should cover it but there should be required to put some controls in.”
Thailand’s Prime Minister, Prayuth Chan-Ocha, was also dismayed over the coverage, and was quoted in the Bangkok Post saying: “Was the practice something [the media thinks] was admirable? How many times do I have to beg you not to show public images or footage containing violent scenes?”
Many Thais were outraged over the graphic content but others were less concerned, but the issue raises a question of behavior for journalists around the world who are often faced with competing choices – the need to provide coverage of a dramatic event that is a matter of public concern and the equally important obligation to avoid undue invasion of personal privacy and not to show images that are shocking and potentially damaging to vulnerable members of the community, particularly children.
The Code of Ethics for the Press Council of Thailand recognizing this dilemma includes the following stipulations:
When presenting news report, newspapers must take into consideration the welfare and the benefit of the general public.
Newspapers must take into consideration the humanitarian principle and the dignity of an individual person when he or she is being presented in photo or mentioned in news story.
Few would argue that the live broadcast of a suicide protected the dignity of Wanchai, or shielded the public from the consequences of witnessing extremely violent imagery.
Another well-known code that takes up this question is the Society of Professional Journalists Ethics Code which urges journalists to do no harm.
Balance the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance or undue intrusiveness. Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity, even if others do.
Reporting on suicide is a challenge for all societies and many countries have different cultural approaches to the issue which affect media. In some Nordic countries it was until recently the case that media would hardly ever report on suicides at all, recognising that these were deeply troubling events for families. Media in Norway, for instance, maintained a respectful silence in 1992 following the suicide of the son of Gro Harlem Bruntland, a former Prime Minister,
But in the age of instant news and fierce media competition the drama of a police stand off with a suspect is impossible to ignore. However, media still remain accountable to the public for what they publish and must consider how that will affect society.
Publishing graphic content for the sake of curiosity, sensationalizes stories rather than presenting an objective and balanced narrative.
Agence France Presse Ethics Guidelines note the importance of protecting the public from unnecessary grief by reporting on death cautiously.
The false, or precipitous, reporting of a death can cause unnecessary grief and distress, is extremely damaging to AFP’s reputation and should be prevented at all costs.
Careful consideration must be given to the filming and publishing of a graphic image – does it add to the understanding of the story in an essential way or just appeal to morbid interest? If an image or images are very strong but still merit publishing the public interest, they should carry a graphic image warning.
It is unclear if the Thai regulator NTBC will penalise broadcasters that showed the suicide live. However, Phepchai Yong, president of the Thai Broadcast Journalists Association, said he hopes that the industry can come together to establish ethical broadcasting guidelines for the future.
AFP South East Asia Correspondent, Jerome Taylor tweeted:
More accurate headline would be: “Thai TV channels live broadcast lecturer suicide” pic.twitter.com/zCF0rSWI8v
— Jerome Taylor (@JeromeTaylor) May 20, 2016
Photo credit: BBC
Changes to the article after publication:
09.08 Saturday 28th May 2016
After publishing this article on Friday 27th May, the EJN decided to make one alteration to the article after publication, changing the word “censored” and replacing it with “edited” in this sentence: Although some channels blurred the image of Wanchai or edited the images of the standoff, other stations broadcast the entire incident and the suicide live.
The EJN’s director, Aidan White, explains the decision to amend the article:
The term “censored” implies that legitimate information has been suppressed. The term “editing” is the correct term describing the journalistic process of preparing material for publication or broadcast, according to ethical principles.
“Censorship” is not a synonym for “editing” and it should be remembered that journalistic editing is a professional process covering what to publish and how to publish it. When journalists removed something from a story for the right reasons it should should never be described as censorship. In cases such as the one mentioned in this article this is in fact the application of good editorial judgement.
Of course when journalists make editing decisions not for journalistic reasons but out of fear of reprisals from the authorities or interested parties (including media owners or politically-driven editors) then it becomes “self-censorship”.