Don’t hide suicides from your readers

Publishers Auxiliary/May 2005

Suicide reports stir the strongest emotions among grieving families and friends. These stories prompt the most strident complaints that newspapers are sticking their nose into personal affairs. Newspapers also face resistance from authorities regarding release of information, even though cause of death is public information under many state laws.

The incidence of suicide – it was the No. 3 cause of death among people ages 15 to 24, according to a U.S. surgeon general’s report in 1997 – is why the topic deserves examination as a broader social concern. But the growing death count doesn’t make the reporting of suicide any easier for newspapers, especially in small towns.

Even newspapers that reject the idea of reporting suicides cannot ignore that some circumstances demand an exception. For example, an individual ties up traffic on a high bridge before jumping to death. Police officers surround a house where someone is holding hostages at gunpoint; the person commits suicide rather than surrendering. A mayor takes his life.

Many newspapers adopt a policy to report suicides only if they involve public officials or if they occur in public settings. The three previous examples fit nicely into those categories. But the definition of what is a public or private setting, or who is a public or private individual, is not always so clear.

Think about the following scenarios:

A bank president who has served on almost every community board imaginable is found dead in a car in a city parking lot. As an alternative, consider if he commits suicide in the privacy of his home.

Reflect on the same circumstances, but now substitute a retail clerk as the suicide victim.

A star athlete is found dead outside school as students arrive for class. Then consider his discovery late at night by a janitor.

Reflect on the same circumstances, but now substitute a student who isn’t involved in any extracurricular activities as the suicide victim.

Decisions suddenly do not become so black and white.

Mayors are public officials under the letter of the law. Newspapers are in excellent position to defend reporting a suicide. But are bank presidents, or other major business figures in small communities, any less noteworthy?

Newspapers frequently are challenged about whether it’s fair to families – just because they have been deemed prominent under someone’s objective or subjective guideline – that their personal tragedies, or successes, get publicized.

Editors must view that question from the opposite perspective, too. By not reporting a suicide – because an individual has not been deemed important – is that sending a message that a family’s loss is less important?

Several things should be considered in establishing guidelines for reporting suicides. Among them:

When do suicides warrant front-page coverage?

How much detail should be included? Should the cause of death be identified?

Should suicide ever be reported as the cause of death in an obituary versus in a separate story?

As with the development of any policy, it’s important to talk with certain individuals in framing suicide coverage. Health-care professionals should be among the first contacts. Talk as well to school counselors, mental health advocates, clergy, law enforcement personnel and medical response teams. Ask to speak at a meeting of grief support groups.

Don’t forget that co-workers at newspapers may be among the best resources. They and their families are community members, too.

Newsrooms often become preoccupied with reporting a news event, then fall short on attention to follow-up stories. Suicides often present an excellent opportunity for stories that address the causes of suicide, namely depression.

These can be worthwhile and educational stories. But newspapers must consider the impact on victims’ families and friends. No matter how the stories are pursued and presented, personal tragedy is the springboard for the coverage. Follow-up stories, no matter how well intentioned, will put a family back in the spotlight.

Does this mean these stories should be avoided? No. Indeed, sometimes it can’t be ignored. Many communities have a very visible and methodical response to deal with tragedies. Responsive and responsible newspapers can do a great deal to help communities work through such tragedies, but coverage must be done with sensitivity.

The sensitivity of suicide almost makes the subject taboo in general conversation, and it brings a feeling of guilt or embarrassment to mention in an obituary.

That in itself is unfortunate, because suicide truly is an epidemic. Suicide claimed nearly twice as many lives as did HIV and AIDS, according to 1997 U.S. statistics. Public and private interests have spent millions of dollars to combat those diseases.

A first step to address suicide is to acknowledge and talk about suicide in our communities.