Honesty always the best policy in reporting mental health issues

A SYMPOSIUM on how media covers mental health stories and suicide, organised by the journalism department at the University of Limerick yesterday, heard press ombudsman Seán Donlon argue that we cannot rely on social media, especially social media where output is filtered through an automated, conscience-free technological process rather than a human one, to understand the nuances of life’s tragedies and inevitable implosions.

Mr Donlon condemned the “off-the-wall” standards of some social media which more than half of Irish people now regard as reliable sources of news. It is not surprising that a newspaper established in 1841 — like this one — would agree with Mr Donlon. The advance of social media, one that accelerates every day, has huge implications for the old, traditional media. However, the changes social media will, almost unknowingly, bring are leading to a far greater, long-term change in human relationships. The impact social media will have on society and how we treat each other will be far greater than any impact it might have on long- established ways of communicating — and that impact on newspapers is not underestimated.

If we rely on hands-free, conscience-neutral information from social media sites where sensitive human intervention is kept to a minimum, we will indeed have moved to a post-factual world where the heartbreaking issues described by another contributor are dealt with in a way that are less than optimal or even honest. Una Butler, who lost two daughters and her husband in a murder-suicide insisted that people and society “have a right to know” how often these tragedies occur so they might be better understood or prevented. She argued that accurate reporting can play a positive part in understanding the issues and possibly even lead to the reform of the Mental Health Act that limits who can be involved in the treatment of a person with mental health issues.

In essence, these contributors argued that we have nothing to fear from honest, well-informed and sensitive reporting but everything to lose if those time-honoured principles are lost in the onward march of uncontrolled social media.

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