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Apr 6 2009

In Depth

Covering Teen Suicide

Suicide is a leading cause of teenage deaths, but is often treated as a journalistic taboo. Reporters and researchers break down the complicated ethical issues reporters must face to get the story right.

Keenan Buhl seemed like any other teenager at Simley High School in suburban St. Paul Minnesota. Buhl, 17, was a co-captain of Simley's swimming team, he lettered in track, and played the tuba in the school's marching band.  Buhl's friends, coaches and parents knew he was grappling with depression, they just didn't know to what extent. It wasn't until after Buhl took his own life, after his parents read his journal, that they were made fully aware of what Buhl was going through.

One of Buhl's best friends, a fellow co-team captain, knew about Buhl's depression, “but [Buhl] never really brought it up,” reported Boyd Huppert, of Kare11 TV, in a story about Buhl's death and the  impact it had on members of Simley's swim team.

“It just caught us by surprise. It just seemed too surreal to believe,” another of Keenan's friends told Huppert.

Teen suicide is one of the leading causes of death among adolescents in the United States. And yet discussion about depression and suicide is often considered a social taboo. Despite a preponderance of studies and information collected about youth suicide, productive public discussion in the aftermath of a suicide death can be stunted in the areas they matter most: the communities they affect.In the case of Keenan Buhl, Boyd's feature story revisited Keenan's suicide nearly a year later, to see how the swim team was handling a new season without their teammate. Time is sometimes what is needed to cover an event as traumatizing to families as suicide. Still, many newspapers and media outlets have policies against covering the suicides of young people, especially if the death involves a minor.

Though it's a daunting task, and some editors are reluctant to cover suicide, does this mean the issue should be avoided by student journalists?

Not necessarily.

In an absence of local media coverage, student newspapers can be a valuable resource—fact checking the rumors and murmurs that are passed down the halls and online through social-networking sites like Facebook or MySpace. They can open dialog about student needs, and get suicide awareness information out to the school community.

“The fact is school newspapers don't report suicide; it's hushed up,” says Frank Ochberg, Dart Center chairman emeritus. “Many administrators step in. The belief is that you can't really break the code of silence, tell the details."

“There are all kinds of myths. And if ever journalism should do what journalism is all about—which is an informed and well researched article on things that happen—it should be done with high school suicide because the myths run, the rumors run and this is an age where there is a risk.”

Nonetheless, there are many ethical issues at play and student journalists need to take into account the impact of what they write may have—not only with friends and family members of a suicide victim, but on people who themselves are suicidal. One question student journalists need to ask themselves is if the suicide warrants coverage at all.

The Media Contagion

Research by mental health experts suggests spotlighting suicide through media coverage can actually encourage others to follow suit—especially if a suicide is portrayed as glamorous or romantic.

According to Dr. Madelyn Gould, a professor of child psychiatry and public health at Columbia University, media coverage of suicides can be a contagion that sparks other “copycat” suicides. Excessively descriptive or sensational articles, focusing on methods used by a suicide victims, can provide a “how to” for others who identify with the victim.

"There is an abundance of research that supports the unfortunate conclusion that reporting a suicide can lead to a significant increase in suicides in the community where the newspaper article or television program ran,” Gould says.

“But how you cover the death makes a very big difference on its impact. Try to cover the story in such a way that the death isn't described in detail. What you don't want to do is provide a 'how to.' It can make the act seem painless or easy.”

Often times writing about suicide requires subtle and delicate brush strokes when journalists are far more accustomed to painting by throwing the bucket.

“Whether we want to admit it or not, as journalists, we are in the business of sensationalism.”

Joe Dejka is a staff writer at the Omaha World-Herald who recently wrote about the social contagion that linked the suicides of numerous teenagers in the Omaha area . Numerical and anecdotal data suggested that over a two year period a number of the teenagers who died of suicide, often with seemingly non-existent ties to each other, were nonetheless linked. Dejka said community members were aware they were losing too many kids to suicide. No one knew how many. No one could quite put a finger on what it was, except they knew something wasn't right, he said.  Dejka said he felt obligated to bring the trend to the public's attention. But even with the appearance of a pattern, Dejka's editors were skeptical. Eventually, however, after consulting mental health professionals, they decided to run the story.

“There is no guarantee that somebody is not going to be affected; the media affects people,” Dejka says.  “But we were confident that when we finally published that we had satisfied our responsibility because we did not sensationalize, we did not unduly memorialize the victims, and we did not put in too much detail.

“Writing about suicide was very difficult. Whether we want to admit it or not, as journalists, we are in the business of sensationalism. I knew as a writer that the more vivid a description I could paint of this dramatic, emotional scene, the harder hitting the story would be. But I also knew these details are precisely the kinds of things that psychologists warn us about in writing about suicide. And, in the interest of being responsible I had to choose a more sober approach."

The Family

Journalism is steeped in a rough and tumble and hard-edged mystique. Famous figures in journalism—be it the hard-drinking Ernest Hemingway, or Orson Welles portrayal of media mogul William Randolph Hearst in Citizen Kane—have displayed this fast paced, it's-the-public's-right-to-know mentality; a doggedness to squeeze “news-worthy” details out of a situation. The problem, especially when covering the suicide death of a young person, is that it isn't always the public's right to know. Those who have committed suicide are not the only victims, family members and friends are victims too. Often times family members are in so much emotional distress that they say things they ordinarily wouldn't.  And student journalists covering suicide need to approach families with empathy and respect, as opposed to the hard edged caricatures put forth by lore and the journalism mystique.

So what does this mean for a student reporter working on deadline to complete a story?

According to Carolyn Spellman, deputy director of the Journalism Center on Children and Families, the first step is a conversation with your editor or your newspaper's faculty advisor. Develop a game plan for how to approach traumatized family members. Perhaps discuss a few ways to start a conversation (“Hello, My name is Brian and I'm from x publication. I am sorry for your loss. Is it OK for me to ask you a few questions about Joe's life”). Journalists covering suicide need to be keenly aware that what they write could live with the family of a suicide victim for a long time. Because family members dealing with a loved ones death are often in a volatile or emotional state, Spellman recommends getting a contact phone number after conducting an interview. She says that way, if there is anything questionable or potentially harmful, a reporter can double check to make sure family members are comfortable with statements made to the press.

One of the ethical dilemmas in covering families and trauma is that there's pressure. "You need to get whatever interviews you can in the first few hours—the story is breaking. And the problem is you're dealing with people who are undergoing great trauma and you have to take tremendous responsibility, even more so than at any other time, to take into account what they're saying,” Spellman says.

“It's important from a personal ethical standpoint to give certain allowances to a family undergoing something so critical at that moment. If something were taken out of context or a family or reported insensitively or inappropriately, that has long term consequences for the family."

Dr. Madelyn Spellman of Columbia University stressed the importance going into a situation informed about facts and statistics, as well as myths that pertain to suicide. Additionally she says it is very important to focus on collecting facts as opposed to comments and opinions from neighbors or bystanders.

“Community members you interview and law enforcement sources can have their own biases and agendas. If you interview somebody without understanding the underlying factors at play, you could misrepresent the reality of the situation. It's important for journalists to have a realistic context from which they can develop a story,” she says.

Sometimes respectful coverage means you might have to wait to write a story. Sometimes, given the circumstances of the situation what's best from an ethical standpoint is not writing a story at all. The time isn't always right. When reporting about the suicide death of Keenan Buhl, Boyd Huppert revisited the issue a year later. When it came time to ask Buhl's family members if they would consent to participating in the story, Huppert made his initial contacts through intermediaries on Buhl's swim team, as a test of the waters.

“The thing I've learned, whatever the tragedy or the difficult story I'm working on, I've found that it always helps to find an intermediary to contact the subjects more directly. In this case, first I had contact with the parents of another kid on the team. Then I called the coach and talked to her, and I let her decide if she was comfortable contacting Keenan's parents and letting the story move forward,” Huppert said.  
 

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Brian Slodysko

  • Brian Slodysko, a University of Washington journalism student, currently reports on Washington State politics for the Associated Press.

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