Suicides in your community can no longer be ignored
February 25, 2016
By Jim Pumarlo
The circumstance is becoming all too common. A student’s death rocks the community, and it’s ruled a suicide. The word spreads like wildfire among coffee shops, shopping centers and any other informal gathering place. Grief support teams are called into schools to meet and talk with students, oftentimes in one-on-one consultations. The death becomes dinner conversation throughout households.
Untimely deaths are always difficult to report, and suicides are especially challenging. They are among the most sensitive of stories. And they are the types of news that must be reported if newspapers are to be regarded as living histories of their communities.
Statistics alone present a compelling case that suicides are news. Suicide is among the leading causes of deaths; many consider it an epidemic. In 2013, suicide was the 10th leading cause of death for all ages in the U.S. It was the third leading cause of death for ages 10-14, the second among ages 15-34, the fourth among ages 35-44, the fifth among ages 45-54 years and the eighth among ages 55-64.
Even newspapers that reject the idea of reporting suicides cannot ignore that some circumstances demand an exception. For example, an individual ties up traffic on a high bridge before jumping to death. Police officers surround a house where someone is holding hostages at gunpoint; the person commits suicide rather than surrendering. A mayor takes his life.
Many newspapers adopt a policy to report suicides only if they involve public officials or if they occur in public settings. The above examples fit nicely into those categories. But the definition of what is a public or private setting, or who is a public or private individual, is not always so clear.
Consider a bank president, who has served on almost every community board imaginable, is found dead in a car in a city lot. As an alternative, he commits suicide in the privacy of his home. Reflect on the same circumstances, but now substitute a retail clerk as the suicide victim.
Or what about a star athlete found dead outside school as students arrive for class. Then consider his discovery late at night by a janitor. Reflect on the same circumstances, but now the suicide victim is a student who isn’t involved in any extracurricular activities.
Decisions suddenly do not become so black and white.
Editors also must ask themselves: Are any of the deaths less noteworthy?
Newspapers frequently are challenged about whether it’s fair to families—just because they have been deemed prominent under someone’s objective or subjective guideline—that their personal tragedies, or successes, get publicized. Editors must view that question from the opposite perspective, too. By not reporting a suicide—because an individual has not been deemed important—is that sending a message that a family’s loss is less important?
Several things should be considered in establishing guidelines for reporting suicides. Among them:
• When do suicides warrant front-page coverage?
• How much detail should be included? Should the cause of death be identified?
• Should suicide ever be reported as the cause of death in an obituary versus in a separate story?
• Should certain words or phrases be avoided, or encouraged, in the reports?
• Should reports regularly be accompanied by hotline numbers for individuals contemplating suicide?
As with the development of any policy, it’s important to talk with certain individuals in framing suicide coverage. Health-care professionals should be among the first contacts. Also talk to school counselors, mental health advocates, clergy, law enforcement personnel and medical response teams. Ask to speak at a meeting of grief support groups.
Don’t forget that your co-workers may be among the best resources. They and their families are community members, too.
Newsrooms often become preoccupied with reporting a news event, then fall short on attention to follow-up stories. Suicides can present an excellent opportunity for stories that address the causes of suicide, namely depression.
These can be worthwhile and educational stories. But newspapers must consider the impact on victims’ families and friends. No matter how the stories are pursued and presented, personal tragedy is the springboard for the coverage. Follow-up stories, no matter how well intentioned, will put a family back in the spotlight.
Does this mean these stories should be avoided? No. Indeed, sometimes it can’t be ignored. Many communities have a visible and methodical response to deal with tragedies. Responsive and responsible newspapers can do a great deal to help communities work through such tragedies, but coverage must be carefully thought out.
The sensitivity of suicide almost makes the subject taboo in general conversation, and it to mention it in an obituary brings a feeling of guilt or embarrassment. That in itself is unfortunate, because suicide is reaching proportions that cannot be ignored.
A first step to address suicide is to acknowledge and talk about suicide in our communities. Newspapers can play a key role in initiating and guiding that conversation. Done responsibly, it can be a win-win for your newspaper and your community. © Jim Pumarlo 2016
Jim Pumarlo writes, speaks and provides training on Community Newsroom Success Strategies. He is author of “Votes and Quotes: A Guide to Outstanding Election Coverage” and “Bad News and Good Judgment: A Guide to Reporting on Sensitive Issues in a Small-Town Newspaper.” He can be contacted at www.pumarlo.com.