Media and the hard truth about suicides

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No one likes covering a suicide. The publicity may add pain at a time of grieving, and can, experts fear, push other suicidal people over the age. But for Stephen J. A. Ward, the question is how -- not whether -- painful facts should be reported.

Recent suicides and deaths of former NHL enforcers have stirred up debate about the NHL’s support system for hockey players during their career – and after they retire.

The deaths have also raised, once again, the question of how news media cover the deaths of public figures.

On the surface, reporting on a suicide, or the death of a troubled person, seems to be a cold and exploitive business. Journalists are subject to criticism as they ask tough questions, conduct interviews with grieving families, and seek information from organizations.

Recently, the trend seems to be towards cautious reporting to avoid these criticisms.

In Canada, news media increasingly may not report the cause of death; or officials may not release information on the cause or manner of death, citing respect for the privacy of families.  For example, in August, officials were reluctant to discuss, explicitly, the cause of death of Winnipeg Jets forward Rick Rypien.

How explicit should news media be when covering these deaths?

Lean toward reporting

The pain of publicity is real.  

But it would be a mistake to conclude that journalists should not cover these personal tragedies. To be blunt, suicides are frequently newsworthy – a public official in trouble commits suicide, a distraught military hero takes his life, a hockey player dies after battling depression. These cases are frequently more than newsworthy. They challenge journalists to explore the economic and social factors that may help to induce suicidal behavior.

When we witness a string of suicides among any group – among students at a school or among young people in an aboriginal community -- suicide is no longer personal but social. It is the responsibility of journalists to explore the reasons for these disturbing patterns in the fabric of society. Suicide is often a taboo subject in society. Journalists need to break down our inclination not to discuss such painful events. (For an excellent example of one journalist who did so, see Liam Casey’s recent Ryerson Review of Journalism feature “Suicide Notes”)

The same applies to hockey players. Journalists should not shrink from investigating why the deaths occurred and possible remedies. It should not inadvertently protect the NHL’s support system by shrinking from asking tough questions. Journalists should not avoid tough questions out of a sincere sympathy for the aggrieved family.

So the default position is this: Where the deaths indicate a serious social problem, then journalists should not only report the deaths -- they should lean towards reporting as much about the causes and implications of the deaths as necessary, although this reporting is painful to families.

Journalists should maintain a record of such events so that uncomfortable topics are discussed publicly. In this way, suicides and the death of children to disease — and many other problems — are not hidden behind closed doors, leaving public discussion to feast on rumor and speculation.

So, journalism ethics contains a presumption to report important, if unsettling, facts. But does this presumption include such things as reporting the cause of death and the manner of death? 

Death is a public fact

I believe that officials should issue statements on the cause of death of all citizens who die in any manner. Or, officials should be required to make such information available to any citizen or journalist. Deaths in any society should be a matter of public record. No exceptions. The release of this information should not be in the hands of family.  
      
Others suggest that news media should tell the public very little about the manner of death. To be sure, great detail is not needed in most suicides. But a news story needs to report some facts about the circumstances of death, e.g. that it was a drug overdose after deep depression. Such facts are especially important where the person in question is a public figure, or the death indicates an underlying social problem.
       
Of course, journalists should minimize harm. News reports should stay close to the known facts. Reporters should avoid speculating about reasons for the suicide and avoid fantasizing about what may have been in the mind of the person at the time.
       
To avoid copycat behavior, reporters should avoid sensationalizing a suicide. They should avoid treating suicide as an unexplainable, personal decision that lacks causes and cannot be prevented. The reports should tell people where they can find help. Journalists should bring the community together to openly face a suicide problem.

Journalists and expert guidelines

Some people argue that journalists should follow the guidelines on reporting suicide  provided by organizations such as the Canadian Psychiatric Association. This association advises journalists to avoid putting the word “suicide” in the headline, and to avoid giving details of the method used.

It also says that media should avoid photos of the deceased, avoid admiration of the deceased, avoid front page coverage, and avoid repetitive and excessive coverage.

Many of the association’s recommendations can be adopted as journalistic guidelines. But journalists should not simply, without question, adopt the guidelines. Journalists have a different social role to play than health professionals. Journalists may have to reject or modify the guidelines of experts.

For instance, it is questionable that journalists should accept the rule to never put suicide in the headline. The fact that a death was suicide – and not homicide or accidental death -- is significant information in many stories. The word may belong in the headline. Moreover, I am not sure what purpose is served by burying the fact of suicide inside the story.

Also, journalists cannot – and should not – agree as a general rule that they will not put suicides on the front page and they will never use a photo of the deceased. On the other hand, avoiding excessive coverage can be embraced.

Journalists should use expert knowledge to develop a list of informed “best practices” for the coverage of suicide. These practices will promote compassionate coverage and minimize harm. But journalists need to adapt expert guidelines, not copy them.

Overall, the issue of covering suicides is not that of avoiding mention of the cause of death or avoiding facts about the manner of death.

The issue is how stories provide such information in actual situations, and how editors make nuanced judgments about what information is necessary for public consumption.

Of course, the guiding principle should not be sensationalism – publish what is shocking to attract readers.

The guiding principle should be: publish uncomfortable facts where such information is necessary for a clear public understanding of the event and to indicate what social responses might be necessary.

If journalists do that, they may still be criticized and unloved; but they will have discharged their public obligations.

Comments

I'm reading this after just speaking with Ontario's Child Advocate. He first came to Kenora four years ago, after I challenged him to see if the suicide of a First Nations child in care -- who was lost in the system -- mattered at Queen's Park in Toronto. To his credit, he took up the challenge.

In 2011, he's in the process of  setting up offices in the northern Ontario to provide a voice for those forgotten by the system, but he's still battling the bureaucracy in court to get access to information. He's also not convinced that political parties this fall are talking about reform -- rather than simply cutting from the bottom line -- in an effort to control provincial deficits.

A more child-centred approach to reforming agencies would also assist those in Pikangikum, where a resurgence of youth suicides is again troubling the First Nation.

Not as eye-catching as a dead NHL star, but important to our communities.

I would add that youth suicides aren't restricted to aboriginal people in our part of the world. When a young man "passed away suddenly" in our city, hundreds of his friends and classmates turned up at his school in the middle of August to pay their respects. We did cover this, but without using the word "suicide" and without talking about how he did it. In our relatively small community, I chose to follow the guidance of those close to the family, in terms of the choice of language, while still getting at the issues behind the tragedy. Here was a middle-class kid, engaged to be married at 17, who was simply overcome with emotion when his relationship went terribly wrong. 

Supports for mental health are an important topic among students, which is being addressed directly by school boards and agencies. Again, advocates of change will need help to change mandates and collective bargaining agreements, in order to allow a more child-centred approach that would offer those in need access to more resources and a more seamless service.

Thanks for reading...

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