How to teach Responsible Suicide Reporting (RSR)

Here you will find details on how you can introduce the topic of ethical suicide coverage to your students. It’s really important that they know how to report responsibly so they can avoid potentially contributing to further copycat suicides or potentially harming vulnerable people, i.e. those who have been bereaved, or those who are vulnerable to suicide themselves. Reporting suicide responsibly can also have positive effects on vulnerable people and can help the public understand more about this sensitive subject.

The following sections offer advice on how you can help your students learn about Responsible Suicide Reporting.

Advice to tutors

We recognise that teaching responsible suicide reporting can be daunting, especially if you have little or no experience of teaching sensitive issues or journalism ethics. We want to make this process as accessible as possible for you so that you feel better prepared to take it on. Our lesson plans aim to build your expertise and empower you to guide your students towards reporting engaging, informative and responsible stories that address the key risk factors highlighted in media reporting guidelines like those produced by the WHO, NUJ and Samaritans.

You may be able to draw on your previous professional experience of reporting suicide to recall some of the concerns you might have had. That can be very useful if these were positive encounters but we would caution against sharing your adverse experiences with students.

What can you do?

Step One – Prepare

Creating a safe space

It is important that you frame any sessions talking about suicide in a responsible and ethical manner. You should be aware that in a survey by Luce and Duncan (2018) asking journalism students about their perceptions on suicide, 60% of respondents said they knew someone who had died by suicide and 20% said they had lost someone close to them.


The aim is to provide students with an absorbing way of learning about suicide reporting that is based on what you already do with them – storytelling.

That means you can build in teaching and learning about suicide reporting into practical journalism modules like news, features, magazine journalism, mobile journalism, data journalism, podcasting, video journalism, broadcast journalism, sports journalism and other specialisms; news days, and breaking news scenarios. You could also use parts of our lessons in theoretical classes, e.g. journalism ethics, news theory, public affairs, and law.

You can choose to use these lesson plans individually, in part, or combine several together for a 1-2 hour session.
In these lessons our approach with students is:

• you lead, we guide
• interactive and collaborative
• learn as you go, find out and feed back


The lesson plans are a series of mini-lessons – bite-sized chunks so you have control over how you integrate the topic of suicide into your teaching.

They are designed as stand-alone lessons to give you flexibility to fit them into existing classes, modules or courses. You can use as many or as few as you can accommodate. Three mini-lessons are fundamental – What is Responsible Suicide Reporting (RSR)?; How do we report a responsible suicide story?; and How do you write a responsible suicide story? – and we would recommend that you use these in your classes first and foremost.

The lessons

Here, we introduce students to some facts about suicide to provide them with some context to their reporting. You can present these as slides for discussion, do an online quiz, create an infographic or ask students to find some key statistics as a research task.

Here are some stats to get you started:

  • Every 40 seconds a person dies by suicide somewhere in the world
  • Suicide was the 17th leading cause of death in 2017 (the latest global statistics available, WHO)
  • 6,507 people killed themselves in the UK in 2018
  • Suicide costs the UK economy £11.1billion per annum in future economic potential, National Health Service (NHS) expenditure and supporting those bereaved by suicide.
  • For every person who dies by suicide, between six and 135 people are significantly affected by the death
  • For every individual who takes their own life, at least 20 more will attempt to kill themselves (WHO).

Samaritans collate suicide statistics for the UK and Republic of Ireland each year. See their report here.


1. Divide your class into half. Group 1 only looks at codes of practice. Group 2 only looks at media reporting guidelines on suicide.

a. Ask your students what they have learned? What are the main takeaways?
b. What is similar between the codes and guidelines? What is different?
c. Ask your students how they would report a suicide as a result of this activity
d. Encourage discussion about the use of codes vs. guidelines. Is one better than the other?

2. Provide groups with different published suicide stories. Ask them to read the stories and identify what they think is ethically right or wrong.

a. How do the stories describe the suicide method?
b. How do the stories describe the location of the suicide?
c. Have the stories provided a set of instructions for someone to take their own life?
d. What do your students think of the language used in the stories?
e. Is one story better than another? Why?

3. Raise the issue of stigma with them. Ask them to look at the stories to see if anyone is stigmatised in them?

a. Are they labelled?
b. Are they stereotyped?
c. Are they separated or othered into ‘them’ and ‘us’?

Suicide reporting stigma

Guidelines are useful but for journalists, under pressure of deadline and heavy workloads, it’s tough to seek out external resources to check if their reporting is ethical. That’s why we’ve devised the Responsible Suicide Reporting Model, a decision-making tool that embeds journalists’ ethical choices within their reporting.

  • It’s based on storytelling – your journalism students will probably know how to do this already
  • It pays attention to news values – so students can make newsworthy choices
  • It takes account of news pressures – they know how to report so they can focus on what to report
  • Key advice from media guidelines are built into it – so students don’t need to consult other guidelines unless they want to
  • And, it treats people with respect – so your students’ reporting will be ethical.

So where do you start? The RSR model is made up of three steps:

  • Step 1: Identify the type of suicide story you want your students to write

    • Is it an event – the news of the suicide?
    • An inquest?
    • An anniversary of a newsworthy suicide?
    • A tribute to the deceased?
    • A memorial story?
  • Step 2: The ethical rules test: students can test their reporting using four rules to avoid harmful content

    • do not stigmatize,
    • do not sensationalise,
    • do not glorify,
    • do not gratuitously report.
  • Step 3: The standard of moderation: students can check their reporting is responsible by asking these six questions:

    1. Have I minimized harm to those affected by suicide?
    2. Have I told the truth, yet avoided explicit details of method and location?
    3. Have I taken care in producing the story including tone and language?
    4. Have I used social media responsibly?
    5. Do I avoid stereotypes, harmful content and stigmatising stories?
    6. Have I provided support via a helpline?

Watch this video to find out the theory behind the model


1. Provide your students with different types of published suicide stories. Have them identify the different suicide story types per the RSR model: Responsible Suicide Reporting Model Brief

a. Event-Driven
b. Post-Judicial
c. Tribute-Driven
d. Anniversary
e. Action-as-Memorial
f. Ask your students to provide further examples of each story type, either orally or have them look on the internet and share with the class

2. Have students define the ethical rules in groups. What do they think they mean?

a. Now ask them to take the definitions and apply them to the stories they have just read. Ask them to provide examples of:
i. Sensational reporting
ii. Stigmatised reporting
iii. Glorified reporting
iv. Gratuitous reporting
v. Encourage discussion based on what they say/find

3. Using an already published suicide story, ask your students to reflect on the standard of moderation.

a. Does the story minimise harm to those affected by suicide?
b. Does the story avoid explicit details of method and location?
c. Is the tone and language appropriate for the story?
d. Was social media used responsibly?
e. Does the story avoid stereotypes, harmful content and stigmatising language?
f. Does the story provide support via helplines?

Reporting on suicide is not just about what happens in the story; it’s all the elements of news production that go into creating that story. Here we provide some discussion prompts on how to make sure suicide reporting is responsible and ethical beyond the storytelling. Familiarize yourself with the information provided on the journalists toolkit on this website. Each of these discussion prompts comes from best practice provided there.

Discussion Prompt: When you are interviewing someone who has been bereaved by suicide, tell me, how you will keep them safe before, during and after the interview?

Discussion Prompt: Tell me three places where you could find reliable statistics on suicide? OR Tell me how suicide rates are calculated in the UK and Ireland?

Discussion Prompt: Tell me three different helplines/hotlines you could print at the end of a story?

Discussion Prompt: Tell me two things that should not appear in a headline? OR Tell me three phrases that should not appear in your suicide story? OR Explain to me why you should not mention the method or location of death in a suicide story.

Discussion Prompt: Tell me where you should place your suicide story in print, online or broadcast

Discussion Prompt: What can you ethically publish from social media in a suicide story?

Discussion Prompt: Should you use video or audio with a suicide story? Why or why not?

Discussion Prompt: Tell me where you should not provide hyperlinks in a story.

Discussion Prompt: Should you publish a photo or video that depicts the act of suicide or a streamed suicide? Why or why not?

Discussion Prompt: When creating infographics, what should you be aware of?

Discussion Prompt: What is best practice when reporting a celebrity suicide?

Writing a suicide story requires journalists to make ethical decisions about:

  • How much detail to include on the method and location
  • The language and tone they use in their writing
  • What social media content to include, if any
  • Whether the story stigmatizes or stereotypes anyone
  • Whether anyone is harmed by the story, and
  • Which helplines are the most relevant to include in their story.


The following documents can be used for these lessons:

Responsible Suicide Reporting Model Brief


1. Discuss with your students anything they think they should include or avoid in their suicide stories

a. Go through the ethical rules and standard of moderation from the RSR model
b. Ask them to think of these as they write their stories
c. Discuss with them whether they should use the phrase “committed suicide”. What alternatives can they come up with? Are these respectful and non-judgmental?

2. Choose a suicide story type that you would like your students to write (event, tribute, inquest/court case, anniversary, memorial/fundraising).

We have provided some reporting notes of an event story for you (see above) – a list of facts/information that students can use to write a suicide story

Alternatively, you can compile your own reporting notes by extracting facts/information from one or more published suicide stories of your chosen story type. Add in some details of your own if you wish. Change any personal details and geographical location. This makes it more difficult for students to Google the original story and you can tailor the story to places that are familiar to your students.

Give them a set time to write the story so that they feel the pressure of a deadline. (This will depend on the length of story you want them to write, whether you ask them to use multimedia and on their skills level.)

a. Tell them which type of story you want them to produce
b. Give them details on the type of news outlet you want them to write for.
c. Ask them to apply the ethical rules and the standard of moderation as they write the story.
d. They can write the story in pairs – so they can discuss what to include and exclude – or they can write it on their own.
e. Go round the class as they write and discuss their choices and writing style with them.

3. Once the deadline is passed, ask students to share their stories.

Have them exchange their story with another student/pair of students in the class. Ask them to reflect on the stories using these questions:

a. Were the rules followed?
b. Was the standard of moderation followed? Do the stories answer all six questions?
c. Are there any areas that you are unsure about?
d. Ask them for questions and comments. Follow up on anyone who needs help.

Suicide Notes

The advice from media reporting guidelines on suicide is that reporters should avoid including suicide notes or their contents in their stories because of the potential harm to vulnerable people in the wider community. However, increasingly suicide notes, last messages on Instagram and video posts on social media platforms are appearing in news articles. Whether these notes are intended for wider publication/broadcast is unclear but they are the final personal statements of people in despair and therefore their use as part of a news article should be handled with care.

In deciding on the right action to take, journalists – and journalism students – should attempt to balance their duty to pursue a newsworthy story and report the facts with the consequences of such actions to their audience and those affected by the story whilst also considering any greater benefits, such as opening up debate about suicide, that might come from publication. Even if the final message is on a publically accessible social media platform decisions have to be weighed up as to whether a news outlet should use it or not.

Two articles serve as discussion points for this ethical dilemma:
1. Magaluf hotel plunge tragedy: Dad-of-three posts suicide note on Facebook before leaping to his death. (Daily Record, 13 July 2013).
2. Dad’s suicide note revealed in plea for humanity from debt collectors. (Birmingham Mail, 22 July 2018).

In both cases, the suicide notes were published with the families’ consent.


1. Media reporting guidelines say that journalists should refrain from including content from a suicide note and should avoid dramatic or sensationalistic pictures or video (Samaritans)

a. Should relatives’ consent to publish a note override this? What do students think?
b. Are the pictures of these notes dramatic or sensational?
c. What is the right action to take?
d. Ask them to apply the RSR ethical rules and standard of moderation to make their decisions.

2. In the examples above, one note was typed, addressed to the deceased’s sister, and appeared on a social media platform, the other was a handwritten letter to the deceased’s daughters.

a. Discuss with your students which of these notes should be published, if any, and why?
b. Did they find one more emotionally challenging than another? Did that sway their judgment?
c. Ask them to consider news values/newsworthiness versus potential harm to anyone affected by publishing the notes. Which takes precedence?
d. Ask them to use the RSR ethical rules and standard of moderation to check their decisions.

3. Ask students to research the publication of the last message of TV presenter, Caroline Flack. Her family approached the local newspaper to publish her statement, then it was picked up by news outlets from around the world.

a. Given the extensive publicity that her death received should her last message have been published by news outlets?
Use the RSR ethical rules and standard of moderation to inform decision.

And finally … Taking care of yourself

You can find all your self-care needs here 

Reporting suicide can be emotionally exhausting and can resonate with journalists who cover these stories. Therefore, talk to your students about the need for them to be aware of their own mental health and care for themselves as they would a physical illness.

These links may be helpful: