Reporter Raveena Aulakh instructed the Star not to ‘write about’ her suicide, but media coverage of a suicide demands caution, context and compassion, as well as deep understanding that suicide is never just another story, but the end of a life.
The union that represents Toronto Star newsroom employees called Tuesday for an independent investigation into the death of a Star reporter who recently took her own life.
By all reports of those closest to her, the last thing this award-winning global environment reporter wanted was to be the focus of this story about her suicide and its aftermath. She left explicit instructions that this very thing should not happen (“Please don’t talk about me. Please don’t let anyone write about me,” she wrote.) Nor did she want an obituary in the Star, the Star’s common practice when one of its newsroom employees dies. Her family also made clear those explicit wishes and the Star had tried to respect that.
I know for certain that I am letting Raveena Aulakh down in writing this story in my role as public editor tasked with reporting to our readers about her death in light of this now public call for an independent investigation. I can say that because several years ago, she sent me a note about my role at the Star, telling me, “You have never let a Star reporter become a public spectacle and that comes from owning up to mistakes quickly and honestly before it spirals out of control.”
This tragedy should not be a public spectacle and I wish it had not come to this. Certainly, serious mistakes of a personal nature have been made, and relatively quick and serious action taken by the Star as a result. But, sadly, too much here has spiralled out of control and in making this reporter’s death “news” in the interests of the “transparency” today’s journalism seems to always demand we are all doing exactly what Raveena, 42, implored against.
The Star’s policy on suicide says that the Star generally does not cover suicide unless there is some overriding public interest in doing so. While I, and Star editor Michael Cooke, questioned this in a 2012 public editor column on media coverage of the traditionally taboo subject of suicide, I also made clear in a previous column about suicide coverage my grave concerns that writing more openly about suicide could lead to intruding on the privacy of grieving families. To me, the wishes of the family are paramount and I am sorry we are going against the wishes of Raveena’s family here.
Journalists use the word tragedy a lot in reporting on the sad things of our world and to use it here seems to me to somehow belittle the dark grief so many of us feel now that one of us has died in such a heartbreaking manner. The Star’s newsroom is reeling, trying to make sense of the reality that Raveena chose not to live any longer. I have worked in newsrooms for 40 years and have never seen anything like the level of grief and anger exploding here.