After receiving a complaint from a reader, the Press Council has considered whether an article headed "Teenager Christian Adamek commits suicide after he faced being put on sex offenders list for streaking at gridiron game", published on the news.com.au website on 12 October 2013, breached any of the Council’s Standards of Practice. An entry on the homepage, which linked to the full article, was headed "Teen hangs himself after streaking" and read “A teenager has committed suicide after he faced being put on a sex offenders list for streaking at a high school gridiron game”.
The article described how on 27 September Christian Adamek, a 15 year-old boy from Alabama in the United States, had run naked across the field of a high school gridiron game. After the event, he received encouragements on social media from other students, however the school had threatened him with expulsion and he had been arrested, but not charged, over the incident. He hanged himself on 2 October 2013 and died two days later. International media reports mentioned that in Alabama the offence of indecent exposure can lead to a listing on the state’s sex offenders register.
The issues considered by the Council related to its Specific Standards relating to Suicide which require reporting with sensitivity and moderation and with responsibility and balance. They state that reports “should not sensationalise, glamorise or trivialise suicides” and “should not be given undue prominence, especially by unnecessarily explicit headlines or images”.
In particular, the issues concerned the degree of prominence given to the subject in the headlines, the mention of the method of suicide, the use of a photograph of the streaking incident, and the inclusion of social media comments describing him as a “legend”.
The publication said the incidents leading up to his death, including the streaking, were important contextual elements. It said it was in the public interest to report the possible application of the sex offenders list, as there was wide debate, covered extensively in international media, about its appropriateness. There was also discussion about whether the response by authorities could have contributed to the boy’s mental state immediately before he took his life. It said the photograph of him streaking was taken from a long distance and was grainy and blurry, and the social media comments recorded the outpouring of grief in response to his death.
The Council considered that reporting of the issue was sufficiently in the public interest – especially given the possibility the boy would be placed on the sex offender’s list – for details of the event and of his death to be disclosed. However, caution is required when material is likely to be read by people who are especially vulnerable, including other young people who may be contemplating suicide. In this case, it would have been preferable for the report to avoid the specific reference to the fact the boy “hanged himself”, and to avoid the implication in the term “committed suicide” that taking his own life was a crime. The mention of the method of suicide and the inclusion of the photograph and the social media comments may also have had a more harmful impact if the events had taken place in Australia. However, as the events occurred overseas, these aspects of the article did not amount to a breach of the Council’s Standards.
The Council noted that after the complaint was received, the publication reminded its editorial staff of the Standards relating to Suicide and of the need for caution.
Relevant Council Standards (not required for publication):
This adjudication applies the Council’s Specific Standards relating to Suicide. It applied Standard 6: “Reports should not sensationalise, glamorise or trivialise suicides. They should not inappropriately stigmatise suicides or people involved in them but this does not preclude responsible description or discussion of the impacts, even if they are severely adverse, on people, organisations or communities. Where appropriate, underlying causes such as mental illness should be mentioned”; and Standard 7: “Reports should not be given undue prominence, especially by unnecessarily explicit headlines or images. Great care should be taken to avoid causing unnecessary harm or hurt to people who have attempted suicide or to relatives and other people who have been affected by a suicide or attempted suicide. This requires special sensitivity and moderation in both gathering and reporting news (see note 4).”; and Note 5: “It may be preferable to use words such as “died by suicide” or “took his life” rather than a term such as “committed suicide” which can imply commission of a crime.”