Wick Communications

Covering suicide is never easy

In Ethics on April 27, 2012 at 8:39 am

Under what circumstances would you report a suicide? Would you ever show a photo of the scene? Where would you play such a story or photograph?

These are terrible and terribly important questions. Balancing your readers’ right to know with sensitivity to the family and a responsibility to anyone who might act as a  copycat is a grave and difficult thing.

In our neighborhood, we have a commuter train service. Every year about a dozen people step in front of the train and kill themselves. A couple years back, three students from the same high school killed themselves the very same way in just about the same place within a matter of weeks.  Consequently a lot of thought went into preventing further tragedies and that is newsworthy.

One outcome – one that makes me bristle – is that the train service changed the way it reports these events.  For instance, it always refers to those who died as “trespassers.” I think it is partly to make plain the fact that the train service tries to keep people off the tracks, but it also wants to take the romanticism out of the event.

It just never felt right to me, though. …

Now comes this list of tips for reporters and editors confronted with the news of suicide. And I don’t know that I agree with all of it either – even though it comes from some very good sources, including the Office of the Surgeon General and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The first iteration, which I can no longer find online, told reporters to aavoid tributes by family and friends, to always include a referral phone number for a suicide prevention hotline. I don’t think I can agree to those things in each and every case, how about you? This list of suggestions seems more reasonable.

My own personal advice:

  • You don’t have to report on suicides committed in private. We almost never do at our newspaper.
  • Report on those committed in public, particularly if they snarl traffic, create a scene, etc. People want to know. You can squelch rumors with a concise, dispassionate report.
  • Don’t overplay them. Almost always, a brief with the cops report is fine.
  • Use photos of the scene very, very sparingly. Always consider your community values.
  • Never assume cause of death. Get the word from the coroner or another authority.

I hope you will look over the list and give some thought to this important topic before it becomes an issue for you.

Clay

  1. Clay, I would suggest that if the person who commits suicide is a “newsworthy individual,” even with a private action, then it should be noted. I recall our news staffs doing so when a local official/businessperson under investigation took his/her own life. I think we should report it. I am in full accord with the rest of your guidelines.

  2. Thanks, David. Understood and agree. Notice I said “you don’t have to” cover private suicides. I do agree that some of those private suicides are newsworthy. Thanks for noting that distinction.

  3. I was on scene Monday of a pickup that vaulted over a snow berm and crashed into a coffee stand. I kept my camera in the bag until the driver was removed from the pickup. I’m not sure if that’s the right decision but I can only imagine the calls I’d’ve got if a shot of the driver ran. I figured the newsworthy thing was the hole in the coffee stand and with patience I wouldn’t have to risk a shot of a bloody crash victim sneaking by me. Also there was a guy on scene screaming profanity at a woman who was taking a shot with her iPhone prior to the extrication and I didn’t feel like getting punched in the face.

    I’ve reported two suicides. One was a man who jumped from a really scarily high bridge but was alive when rescuers arrived (he died on the way to the hospital) and the other was a girl who hung herself out the window of a downtown apartment. The man on the bridge was newsworthy, no doubt, for the danger he put rescuers in and the crazy amount of effort that went into calling a team from the next borough (county) 70 miles away that knew how to use climbing ropes. I’m still conflicted about the downtown teen. We got a few calls about lots of flashing lights downtown late at night. People certainly wanted to know what happened. But I get lots of those calls and don’t always manage to resolve them. In some ways it felt like an arbitrary distinction to ignore suicides inside the window but report those outside it.

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