How Should the News Deal With Suicide?
There has been much discussion here in our newsroom and among folks in social media, letters to the editor and such, about how journalists do, or should cover the very tragic subject of suicide.
We had a situation recently that many newsrooms face, and I thought we owed you an explanation of how we and others in the news business deal with it.
A 22-year-old girl walked onto the football field of an abandoned Jr. High School here in Casper, and took her own life.
The body was found in the morning, and the question then for all of us in the news business is, how do we deal with it?
Let’s first look at the general standard in journalism. If the deceased is a prominent person, like Robin Williams for example, then yes, you report it.
But if it is someone unknown to the public, then what?
First of all, suicide isn’t a crime.
And, there are studies that show too much publicity can lead to copycat incidents, particularly among young people.
And finally, there is the family. They didn’t ask to be dragged into the news cycle, in addition to the unimaginable grief they will be suffering.
This is more of a judgment call. In our case, the body was found in public, on a football field. Here, you have people who know there was something wrong, police cars, an ambulance and so forth.
So, we just wrote the bare bones of the story. A body was found of a woman, where it was, and that police say it was a suicide. That’s it. The local TV stations and the newspaper handled it much the same way, if at all.
Not all news outlets are frankly as sensitive, but most ethical ones are.
And if this had happened in private, nothing at all would have been said.
So in this case, the public circumstance of the death was the one factor that couldn’t be ignored. Otherwise, it is a personal and private tragedy and we don’t intrude.
Facebook has changed a lot about how much information gets out there, but that’s because it has no rules. No doubt the girl’s name has been revealed and even speculation on what drove her to it.
That is not our affair. Social media cannot drive our ethical decisions. It is what it is.
There are lots of things to be said about the causes, warning signs and results of suicide. And in the coming weeks, you will hear them from this radio station.
But for now, it suffices that we pray for another grieving family.
News departments report a lot of tragedy every day. But unlike murder, robbery, burglary, and other crimes, the subject of suicide is complex and deeply private.
With only a few exceptions, this news department intends to keep it that way.
Wyoming Regional News Director