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.