Reporting a sensitive issue: Suicide

The Missourinet’s Ryan Famuliner attended a conference on suicides last week. He not only covered it, he was a panelist during a discussion of reporting suicides. Some of the discussion focused on whether the media should report suicides at all and what phrasing should be used if a suicide is reported.

On the day that Ryan was attending that conference, the Missourinet reported that a county jail inmate had hanged himself, a man who had been chased by police had shot himself to death after officers stopped his vehicle, and a jury had declared the survivor of a mutual suicide pact was not guilty of manslaughter because his friend killed himself and he couldn’t bring himself to carry out his part of the event. In the past month we have done stories on military suicides and what is being done to avoid them. We’ve also reported several murder-suicides in the past months, usually one spouse who kills the other and then takes his or her own life.

Obviously, we report suicides although some would prefer we do not.

We don’t report them all. While our guidelines are gray around the edges, we generally report those suicides that involve people outside the immediate family and that in some way or another involve the public.

Although some of the people at the conference think we should say someone has “completed suicide” instead of “committed suicide,” we’ll stay with the latter phrase. The reason is simple although it might seem harsh to some. A person “commits” a crime and suicide is a crime. It’s a murder. To suggest that we say someone has “completed a suicide” implies that we would report someone could fail to complete a suicide or that someone was the subject of an incomplete suicide.

We understand the sensitivity of this issue but we do not believe softening a verb is a way to soften the impact of the event. At the Missourinet, circumstances have to be extraordinary before we report someone failed to complete a suicide or, as we say, “attempted” or “tried” to commit suicide.

Missouri does not have much in its statute books dealing with the issue. There is a law against helping someone commit suicide. It was passed a decade or so ago when Dr. Jack Kevorkian was making headlines and it’s targeted at medical professionals assisting in suicides. That law became a strong part of the prosecution last week of the young man who couldn’t pull the trigger on himself after agreeing with a friend to kill himself after the friend shot himself in the head. Trials such as that one happen once every 101 years in Missouri and in both cases, the defendant has been found not guilty.

One of the suggestions at the conference questioned whether reporting suicides encourages others to kill themselves, too. We cannot deny that what we say on the air or show on our television screens influences behavior—that’s why companies buy commercials—but we cannot ignore incidents or issues because the reports might encourage imitation. Researchers have tried for years to gauge the depth of imitative behavior, positive as well as negative, caused by news reporting as well as whether reporting the penalties for aberrant behavior deters others from those actions.

We can subjectively observe that our coverage of 69 executions in the 21 years since lethal injection was established by the legislature has not stopped murders. Reporting on lawmakers and state officials going to prison has not kept others from getting into trouble.

Refusing to report the shortcomings and tragedies of human beings will not end tragedies nor will it lift humanity to a utopian existence. The reporter’s role, in fact, is just the opposite. We are all better able to deal with the issues behind the tragedies and the deficiencies behind the shortcomings if we better know how much they are part of our existence.

The symposium on suicide might not have been held, in fact, if the scope of the problem was not public knowledge.

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One thought on “Reporting a sensitive issue: Suicide

  1. New recommendations for reporting on suicide are now available at: http://www.ReportingOnSuicide.org

    In addition to offering suggestions on how safe reporting can help prevent suicide, the website also provides supporting research and media examples, including this recent article from the Poynter Institute:

    http://www.poynter.org/latest-news/als-morning-meeting/128770/journalists-at-tampa-tv-station-use-skill-care-expertise-to-cover-childs-suicide/

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