“Cause Only The Harm Necessary”

Journalists defended their independence and revealed their struggles in an emotional finale to Dart Center's "Covering Suicide" workshop at WHYY in Philadelphia.

While yesterday’s sessions featuring clinicians and advocates emphasized the pitfalls and dangers posed by media coverage of suicides, the pendulum on Day Two swung definitively in the other direction, as journalists made it clear that best-practice recommendations for reporting suicide often run up against challenging realities.

“Most people who are journalists don’t like to be told what to say and what not to do,” said Jesse Green, an award-winning author and journalist who wrote about the suicide of a New York City private school boy for New York magazine, deliberately setting aside some of the guidelines. “In the end, if a story requires a certain style or voice, you don’t not go there.”

Advocates and experts in the audience at WHYY’s studios in Philadelphia reacted with respect for the opinions of their journalistic counterparts. “This is a complex subject,” said Bob Gebbia, executive director of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, noting that the workshop was only the beginning of a long overdue conversation. “The suicide prevention world is not looking for censorship. We want more coverage. We want this story told. This is only the beginning of the dialogue.”

That dialogue began on Saturday morning with a rousing conversation led by Al Tompkins, an award-winning journalist and senior faculty of the Poynter Institute, whose experience covering suicide runs deep. Years ago, when he was a news director in Nashville, Tennessee, he found himself on a phone call with his office one morning about a man who was on a bridge, threatening to jump. His wife, a psychotherapist, was next to him, also on the phone. He overheard her talking down someone who was threatening suicide. Amazed, Tompkins looked at his wife. “I said, ‘My guy’s on a bridge, where’s your guy?’ She said, ‘My guy’s in a garage.’”

Today, Tompkins sees a major disconnect between the rising suicide rate and the lack of corresponding coverage of the problem. One way for journalists to address it, he urged, is to set aside fear. “It seems to me one of the reasons we cover suicide badly, is we think our first obligation is to minimize harm. But everything we do causes harm… The question is whether the harm is defensible.”

Typical mistakes made in poor coverage, Tompkins said, include overly detailed information about the method of death, oversimplifying the reasons for a suicide, featuring a juvenile’s death without serious consideration of potential consequences, and overplaying the reaction of shock and pain, which can be a magnet for those who want revenge or attention.

Interestingly, the day’s second panel—equally high energy, and even higher emotion—pointed out that while such guidelines make sense for news coverage, they don’t always make sense for longform or feature length stories.

“The long form allows you to perhaps be a bad example to other people, in terms of allowing you to violate every single rule you hear,” said Jesse Green, whose New York magazine piece included vivid details about the suicide itself, and a colorful dramatization of the resulting shock and pain.

Sabrina Rubin Erdely, an award-winning magazine journalist, described taking a similar approach for her Rolling Stone story about a school district in Minnesota that experienced a “suicide cluster,” including several youth who identified as LGBT. That meant having to weigh her fear of further instigating copycat suicides against writing a story that she thought could have more impact. She chose the latter.

“Instead of making it a sad story, I tried to think of it as a horror movie, which was more the sense the kids had,” Rubin Erdely said. “But it also injected a tension into the piece. You didn’t know who was next. Hopefully you didn’t know which of them would live and which would die.”

These journalists said they consulted experts but ultimately gave their own instincts priority, in part because they had spent so much time with the subjects, a luxury most hard news reporters don’t have.

“The first words out of my mouth are ‘Sorry for your loss,’ and an explanation about why I want to do a story, and how it might fit into a bigger story,” said award-winning investigative journalist Michael de Yoanna, whose groundbreaking reporting on military suicides has made him a foe of the U.S. Armed Forces, and a trusted friend of veterans. “If I’m writing about somebody who has died, I put a picture of that person up on my computer monitor, so I can think about that person.”

For Rubin Erdely, trusting her instincts seemed to pay off. When her piece was published, the attention it drew forced the school district to repeal the policy that many of the youth she interviewed said was causing them trauma—it forbid any mention of “homosexuality” on the basis that it promoted it—and the school settled a lawsuit with the youth.

Still, Rubin Erdely experienced her own trauma in the aftermath of publication, which caught her by surprise. “I was getting the most emotional mail I had ever gotten in my life. I felt like I should be on top of the world, but instead I could hardly get out of bed. And I felt kind of stupid feeling that way, because I felt like this trauma isn’t mine... What pain did I suffer?”

De Yoanna became emotional when Karuna Kumar, an editor also pursuing her master's degree in journalism, asked how he separates the personal and professional in his work, which has taken him into the lives of hundreds of bereaving survivors of military deaths and suicides. “It can take a toll on you,” he said, maintaining his composure with effort, as the room fell silent. “I took the step and went to see a therapist to talk about it. She said, ‘Have you ever heard of secondary trauma?’”

He is now working on a documentary about veterans who have turned to bicycling to heal their wounds and is calling the film “Recovering.” “It’s been good for me to be surrounded by that energy, instead of the energy I’ve been focused on for so many years,” he said.

The day wrapped up with a case study of the 2008 suicide of anthrax suspect Bruce Ivins led by Dart Faculty Fellow Ari Goldman, and a story idea brainstorm led by Tompkins, who had one lesson that seemed to sum up the wisdom of the day: “Cause only the harm that is necessary.”

Watch for resources, tip sheets, contact information and full video coverage of the conference here at dartcenter.org.