On November 1, 2011, the Local News column of on.cc, an online edition of Oriental Daily News, carried a report on the suicide of a primary school pupil. In about 100 Chinese characters, the report described the suicide case and how the boy’s school carried out counselling for teachers and students. Along with the text was an 8 cm by 5.5 cm photograph showing the boy being treated, his face partially visible with bloodstains on his left cheek.
Mr Gruxxx lodged a complaint dated 11 Nov, 2011 with the Hong Kong Journalist Association (HKJA) against on.cc’s report. In his letter Mr Gruxxx noted that the image and article remain online and can easily be accessed by the deceased’s friends and family. He claimed the report inaccurately reported the causes of the boy’s suffering in violation of the following terms of the Code of Ethics of HKJA and the HKJA Guidelines on Coverage of Suicides, namely:
(i). Article 6 of the Code of Ethics of HKJA: “intrusion into private grief and distress”; and Article 1 of the same Code which describes the duty of journalists to maintain the “highest professional and ethical standards.”
(ii) Article 5 of the HKJA Guidelines on Coverage of Suicides: Part (c) forbids the use of a victim’s photograph; (d) should “respect the privacy of family members”; (e) avoid “simplicity and blaming any party for a particular case”; (a) use a “low-key” approach; (f) the on.cc article lacks information about support groups.
Subsequently, HKJA sent Oriental Daily News which operates the on.cc news website an enquiry asking for its comments on the complaint. Until August 2012, JA had not received any response from on.cc. HKJA Ethics Committee has studied the case and passed a judgement on Sept. 10, 2012 that Mr Gruxxx’s complaint was partially substantiated. The reasons are as follows:
1. In accordance with Article 5 of HKJA Guidelines on Coverage of Suicides, the Ethics Committee maintains that unless a significant public interest is involved, “the use of a victim’s full name and photograph is therefore discouraged.” In the case of this on.cc report, the Ethics Committee found
that the incident could hardly be considered a case of “significant public interest” that a photograph could not be avoided.
2. The Ethics Committee fully understands that reporters have a duty to report and take pictures at the scene of a news event. However, the news media in Hong Kong has a generally-accepted practice in regards to reporting on minors involved. News media will cover or blur the face of a child or children in order to protect the minors, or not to intrude into the grief of the family of a child victim. Such practice will also prevent other minors from getting emotional over the death, and who are vulnerable to possible imitations of their acts.
3. Reporters should be mindful of the influence of their pictures of suicide, particularly of minors. Special care should be taken in relation to the angle of photographs, depiction of grief of the victim’s family and respect for the deceased should be observed. The on.cc report does not seem to constitute an intentional intrusion into others’ grief and misfortune, but Mr Gruxxx’s letter evidentially demonstrated discomfort caused by the report.
4. In respect of alleged violation of Article 5 (d) of the Guidelines, the Ethics Committee ruled against it. The on.cc report only tells the boy’s age and the name of his school, without identifying his name or address. A school is a “public entity” to a certain extent. The disclosure of the school’s name and boy’s age does not seem to have intruded into the deceased or his family’s privacy. Furthermore, the text focuses more on the school’s follow-up measures of counselling their teachers and students. All in all, the mention of the school’s name in the report does not appear to be inappropriate.
5. The Ethics Committee also ruled that the allegation of violating 5 (f) does not hold. More than 60 percent of the on.cc report was about how the school carried out remedial and counselling services for their teachers and students. Certainly, it would be more desirable if information on counselling services could have been provided to the public in that same story.
6. Regarding the alleged violation of 5 (e), the Ethics Committee ruled that the report failed to comply with the Guidelines on avoiding “simplicity and blaming any party for a particular case”. The report claimed the boy was “suspected to have been scolded by his father” and fell from his apartment. This phrase could lead readers to suggest or associate his father with the tragedy, even though the report did not blame anyone for causing the death, So far, on.cc has not replied to our enquiry or provide further details. The Ethics Committee reiterates that the causes of suicide are
complex and, in fact, should not simply attribute the cause of death to any party. More importantly, the media should explore or analyse the trend of suicides and remedies.
7. Suicides may bring along grief to the survivors and friends, as well as cause others to imitate. It is hoped the news media would draw reference from HKJA Guidelines when reporting on suicides.
Hong Kong Journalists Association
3 October 2012