The responsible media must know the recommended editorial principles for the presentation of suicides

The unethical reports of the Blue Whale phenomenon may have harmful impacts on children

Published: 7 April 2017

It is not in the interest of children if the media presents news of suicides from unverified sources in sensationalist and romantic style or publishes excessive reports of the Blue Whale challenge allegedly pushing several youngsters abroad to suicide. The National Media and Infocommunications Authority (NMHH) warns the responsible media to present suicide cases in line with the principles as published in the 2012 recommendations of NMHH’s Commissioner for Media and Communications based on the guidelines of WHO.

A single report but the stakes are high

So far Internet Hotline, NMHH’s legal advisory service, has only received a single report related to the phenomenon commonly known as the Blue Whale challenge. The report included a link to the login screen of a private group of the Russian social media portal Vkontaktye displaying Hungarian users interested in the Blue Whale challenge. However, there is no document or reliable information available on the specific events within the private group and, thus, so far no significant steps could be taken. Police have received no reports over the past months about the activities of the Blue Whale group or any of its fatal impact on Hungarian youngsters.

Private groups of the social media do provide opportunities for infringements as members may be ill-intentioned and maintain fake profiles. It is also true that adolescents may be more vulnerable to the effects of virtual communities and the situation can be even aggravated by family troubles. If a person incites them to commit suicide in the social media and they, as a result, commit or attempt suicide, that person, pursuant to Articles 160 and 162 of the Hungarian Criminal Code, commits the crime of manslaughter or assisted suicide. As the stakes are high, i.e. the safety of our children, calmness should be exercised to weigh how the public is informed on this subject. Keeping a cool head is indispensable in editorial work to avoid raising awareness and image-like presentation turning into popularisation and promoting ideas.

Avoid sensationalist style and do not paint a favourable picture of suicide

Publishing excessive news reports on the case, promoting unverified information and presenting suicide as something visually positive, romantic or fashionable and creating a sensation around it does not help protect children. Based on the principles of WHO, the Office of the Commissioner for Media and Communications of NMHH provided a detailed recommendation on the principles to apply in the media presentation of suicide: NMHH once again recommends that Hungarian news editors take into account these principles as reports inappropriately presenting suicide may actually increase its appeal. Some of the most important principles:

  1. Suicide cases should only be reported when absolutely necessary. However, once such a case is reported, no simplified answer should be given.
  2. Suicide should not be presented as a rational choice or a solution to issues.
  3. You must avoid factual presentation of the surroundings, the method and the emotional background of the suicide because those may increase the risk of identification.
  4. When describing the incident, avoid sensationalism or portraying it as an everyday occurrence.
  5. The number of copycat cases are lower if the media portrays suicide as a result of a psychological disorder and if it stressed that the incident could have been prevented.
  6. Copycat cases are also fewer if the news report includes an interview with a professional.
  7. Extra caution and moderation must be exercised when publishing any video recording or photo of the incident.
  8. Everyone is obligated to respect the dignity and privacy of the relatives and the deceased.
  9. Each news report should publish the phone number of at least one hotline created for those in crisis.
  10. Reporting a suicide can be depressing and may present a risk even for ‘veteran’ correspondents. Therefore, media organisations are responsible for providing professional help with psychological support to such staff, especially younger ones, to be able to cope with the incident.

How can you help a youngster struggling with thoughts on suicide?

With and without the Blue Whale phenomenon, it is important for parents not to abandon their children in their discovery of the digital world, to set up clear rules for children’s internet presence and to share their online experience with each other. If any teacher, classmate or friends suspects that one of their students or peers is in such a crisis situation, they should support them by being attentive to such persons and seek assistance from a psychologist.