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In Depth

Suicide

Reporting Suicide and Finding a Balance

As media representatives search for ways to responsibly cover suicide — balancing between fighting the stigma, protecting privacy, and avoiding the likelihood of copycat incidents — more help is becoming available.

Journalists, even those who must report within the time and space constraints of daily journalism, often give thought to the most truthful, yet least damaging, way to report suicide. The copycat phenomenon — the tendancy for crimes or suicides to increase after a similar event receives media attention — is certainly not unknown to reporters and editors.

Yet some studies, including a August 2003 study in American Behavioral Scientist, indicate that journalists don’t realize the full extent to which their reporting might result in imitation. The article, “The Responsible Reporting of Suicide in Print Journalism,” traces historical evidence that some news coverage of suicide prompts more attempts. Citing a dramatic increase in the suicide rate after Marilyn Monroe’s death in 1962, the authors note that “the imitative effect of press reporting appears to increase with the prominence and frequency of the story.”

Clinical psychologist Frank Ochberg agrees that this issue of "the contagion of suicide" is one of the most difficult dimensions for journalists.

On the other hand, as Hyvarinen and Dawdy point out, silence can also be lethal.

In his Seattle Weekly article One Suicide Too Many, Philip Dawdy soundly criticizes mainstream media’s coverage of Cynthia Doyon’s suicide. “While murder-suicides often prompt news coverage of ways to protect potential victims, solo acts get little additional attention,” he notes. “… Doyon’s suicide was reported in both (Seattle daily newspapers). Neither newspaper has tackled suicide as an issue. Criminal silence.”

In an email response to Dart, Seattle Times reporter Michael Ko agrees … and disagrees.

“… I definitely agree that suicide is not talked about enough,” he says. “But I'd say that's an issue with society in general, not just with the mainstream press. My friends don't often talk about death. It's awkward to talk to a friend about depression and even more to suggest they do something about it.”

Ko continues, “As Philip (Dawdy) mentioned, we don't write about suicide in the newspaper unless it's public or it involves a public figure. But I'm considering the alternatives: Should we write about every suicide? There are probably hundreds or thousands every year. It doesn't seem practical, it seems kind of morbid, and not really news.

“ … I thought we covered Doyon's suicide pretty well. She was a public figure who killed herself, and we thought our readers should know about it. I thought the story was respectful and professional. Should we have used her death specifically to illuminate the problem of suicide? We don't use every drug death to write about the city's drug problems, or every domestic violence incident to highlight that ill.”

Still, as media representatives search for ways to responsibly cover suicide — balancing between fighting the stigma, protecting privacy, and avoiding the likelihood of copycat incidents — more help is becoming available. The 1999 Surgeon General’s report, along with work like Hyvarinen’s, offers guidelines to effective and sensitive reporting.

Ochberg stresses that knowledge about depression and suicide is crucial for good reporting on the topic — reporters must know enough about the medical aspects of depression not to fear the topic. And, he says, more coverage of larger issues connected to depression and suicide can help educate the public.

Hyvarinen suggests that media organizations develop detailed plans on what to report and what not to report. And, she says, it’s the idealized media images and tributes that are most likely to lead to copycats.

If done responsibly, she says, media reports on suicide can help to remove the stigma of depression, lead people to vital mental health resources and, perhaps, save lives.

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