While the staff articles showed restraint and said only that Robin Williams died of asphyxia or hanging, unfortunately a Reuters wire story posted by The Globe online included far too much unnecessary detail about his death, writes public editor Sylvia Stead.

By Sylvia Stead, public editor of The Globe and Mail

I heard this week from both health-care professionals and readers about the coverage of Robin Williams’s suicide after my earlier blog and it reinforced to me that the writers must always think of the audience. The readership reflects society and many are personally dealing with depression and other illnesses.

In fact, 20 per cent of Canadians will personally experience a mental illness in their lifetime. And if you extend that to family members, friends and colleagues who are trying to help, it is a very large number of Canadians reading and consuming the news who also have personal dealings with mental illness.

Here’s one letter that brought that point home in the most poignant way. I asked the writer for permission to use it here without a name and the writer agreed:

“I write regarding your recent column on the coverage of Mr. Williams’ death. Mr. Williams’ suicide has shaken me, in part because, like many, I identified with the man I imagined him to be from watching his work, and in part because, like Mr. Williams’, I have been diagnosed as bipolar and struggled with some of the same issues. As disturbing as the knowledge that some 20% of those with my condition will end their own lives, the idea that someone so successful, with access to the very best treatment, a loving wife and family, and many friends and colleagues could still succumb is particularly saddening and frightening.

“Your point that ‘The Globe’s articles said Mr. Williams died by asphyxia due to hanging. In my view, that was as much as should have been said about his death. The how is not important’ resonated with me particularly. Like Mr. Williams, I tried to hang myself. … As you suggest, I’m not sure what, if any, positive purpose publishing the details of Mr. Williams’ death furthers. I suspect none, other than the worst ghoulish voyeurism and the basest commercial interests.

“Thank you to The Globe for its restraint.”

I edited out some of the information here in the ellipsis to be consistent with the idea that the details aren’t important. Fortunately, his suicide attempt failed, but he is understandably anxious about reading and recalling.

To continue reading this column, please go theglobeandmail.com where this was originally published.


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Tamara Baluja is an award-winning journalist with CBC Vancouver and the 2018 Michener-Deacon fellow for journalism education. She was the associate editor for J-Source from 2013-2014.