Reporting on Suicide

My dad was never one to shirk from responsibility. The owners of this newspaper are not prone to shirking responsibility. So with all this stand-upidness around me, I’ll say this: We made a mistake. It is my fault, I should have caught and changed an article which ran in The Oxford Leader and Lake Orion Review newspapers.
The story ran a few weeks ago. It was about the suicide of a 19-year-old Oxford woman in Orion’s Friendship Park. Simply put, our story should have stated only a little bit more than the previous sentence. Sadly, we erred in judgement and ran more of the details than were necessary.
While we never ran the woman’s name, we ran information that hurt an already hurting family. We didn’t need all the details. We are a community newspaper and should have shown leadership, should have shown some empathy. We did neither.
Even though our chain of community newspapers (The Leader, Review, Clarkston News and The Citizen in Ortonville/Goodrich area) covers a nice chunk of real estate, we are lucky in that we don’t have to cover suicide often. Every time it comes up, it seems it is a new situation. Up until now, there has been no guide for editors and reporters to turn to.
According to the World Health Organization, ‘The majority of people who consider suicide are ambivalent. They are not sure they want to die. One of the many factors that may lead a vulnerable individual to suicide could be publicity about suicides in the media. How the media report on suicide cases can influence other suicides . . .
? . . .Suicide is often newsworthy and the media have the right to report it. However, the suicides most likely to attract the attention of the media are those that depart from the usual patterns. In fact, it is striking that cases presented in the media are almost invariably atypical and uncommon and to represent them as typical further perpetuates misinformation about suicide. Clinicians and researchers acknowledge that it is not news coverage of suicide, per se, but certain types of news coverage, that increase suicidal behavior in vulnerable populations. Conversely, certain types of coverage may help to prevent imitation of the suicidal behavior.?
Special situations aside (celebrity deaths, homicide-suicides or suicide pacts), here’s what our editorial-types will consider when reporting/writing about suicide.
Keep the stories relatively brief.
Do not place suicide stories on the front page.
Do not sensationalize suicides.
Do not romanticize suicides or portray suicides as heroic.
Do not go into great detail about the methods and do not show detailed pictures of the locations where the suicides occurred.
Do not say suicides occur because of one event (suicides rarely occur because of one event).
Be careful with the wordings of headlines.
Be careful with all the words used in the story.
Do not use the terms ‘successful suicide? or ‘committed suicide.? Use the term ‘died by suicide.?
Do not use the term ‘failed suicide.? Use ‘attempted suicide.?
Do not use the word ‘epidemic? in suicide stories. If suicide rates are rising, use the word ‘rising.? If they are falling, use the word ‘falling.?
Offer suicide prevention information to the public with the story.
Always give the number for the National Hotline Network, 1-800-SUICIDE. Let people know that anyone who is suicidal can call this number 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Reporters should also contact the American Association of Suicidology and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention for more information when covering suicides.
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I guess the bottom-line is, though suicides are newsworthy and while we report newsworthy stories, we can and should exercise common sense. We need to ask ourselves . . .
n What good will come with this story?
n What harm could be caused by this story?
n How can we report a story without causing unnecessary harm?
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