The Response Ability Project: Integrating the Reporting of Suicide and Mental Illness into Journalism Curricula

By Skehan, Jaelea; Burns, Lynette Sheridan et al. | Journalism & Mass Communication Educator, Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

The Response Ability Project: Integrating the Reporting of Suicide and Mental Illness into Journalism Curricula


Skehan, Jaelea, Burns, Lynette Sheridan, Hazell, Trevor, Journalism & Mass Communication Educator


The Response Ability Project is a collaboration between mental health professionals and journalism educators in Australia. It seeks to influence the pre-professional education of journalists so that graduates of university courses will be aware of, and are able to respond appropriately to, issues relating to suicide and mental illness. Importantly, the project situates this learning in the context of the core skills of journalism such as news writing, research, and interviewing. Multi-media resources were developed from pilot resources in 2001 and disseminated to Australian universities. This essay explores key achievements of the project, proposing a place for these issues in journalism curricula internationally.

For many years, the portrayal of suicide and mental illness in the mass media has been of international interest. Research shows that certain representations of suicide may increase the risk of copycat behaviour among vulnerable people.1 That people living with a mental illness are predominantly portrayed by the mass media in a negative and stereotypical way,2 which may increase stigma and discrimination, is of concern.

The Response Ability project is a landmark collaboration between Australian mental health professionals and journalism educators aimed at improv- ing the reporting of mental illness and suicide. While many countries have developed news media guidelines that promote responsible reporting of sui- cide and in some cases mental illness (for example, the United States,3 Canada,4 the United Kingdom,5 Australia,6 New Zealand,7 and Hong Kong8), a more comprehensive ap- proach has been taken in Australia by including this material in the under- graduate training of journalism stu- dents. Through the development of flexible, problem-based curriculum materials now being used in some capacity at all relevant Australian universities, the project aims to influence the thinking of journalists in the preprofessional phase of their education. The Response Ability project advocates not for the avoidance of these important issues in the news media, but rather some attention to ensuring accuracy and examining the framing of such reports. The project proposes that it is possible to discuss issues of public interest in relation to suicide and mental illness without increasing the risk of suicidal behaviour and without reinforcing stereotypes associated with people experiencing a mental illness. International experts, in fact, have argued that mindful reporting of these issues can have a positive impact.9

Given that the evidence that underpins the resources is international and that the approach to journalism around the world has many similarities,10 the Response Ability project could be replicated in other countries. This essay outlines the key components in developing and disseminating the curriculum resources, drawing from program evaluation data, in an attempt to highlight their relevance internationally.

Background to Response Ability

As noted, many news media sectors have codes of practice or guidelines on reporting and portrayal of suicide. In Australia, many of these have been reviewed in the past decade to better reflect the research evidence. Generally, codes call for restraint in reporting about suicide but all allow for circumstances where the "public interest" may be deemed more important than the harm done by breaching the codes. The reporting of mental illness, however, has been largely overlooked as an area of concern within media codes. For example, in Australia, the Code of Ethics governing journalists mentions not placing "...unnecessary emphasis on personal characteristics, including race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, age, sexual orientation, family relationships, religious belief, or physical or intellectual disability,"11 but fails to include mental illness as a consideration. Frequent coverage of suicide and mental illness in news reporting suggests that proper training in this area is important. …

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