Covering Campus Suicide
This simulation is designed to take place during one or two class sessions. Readings can be assigned before the first session.
Part 1 combines readings about suicide with discussions about when and how to handle a website post and a first-day print story about a campus suicide. It concludes with an assignment to do a short (approximately 250 words) story.
- BACKGROUND (about 5 minutes)
- AT THE SCENE THURSDAY, 11:30 A.M. (about 20 minutes)
- BACK AT THE OFFICE THURSDAY, 1 P.M. (about 50 minutes)
Part 2 begins with a debriefing on the stories from Part 1 and proceeds to a discussion about how to begin a second-day story and how much detail to include in suicide coverage. The focus would be on the discussion, without an undue stress on getting a “right” answer. Part 2 concludes with an assignment to write a 500-word story for print publication.
- BACK IN THE OFFICE, FRIDAY 1 P.M. (75 minutes)
PART 1: DISCUSSION QUESTIONS, ISSUES
BACKGROUND (5 minutes)
It may be appropriate to begin with a general discussion about the broad situation. Important issues include the desirability of filing a story for the website; the necessity of being mindful of the distrust that the Greek system has for The Times; the need to locate quickly the PIO; and the way a reporter comports himself/herself when approaching sources who are upset or grieving. Possible questions to discuss:
- Realistically, what can you expect to learn or confirm in the early phases of a story such as this? What are four to six key facts you need to uncover?
- What are you expected to produce from this initial foray? How much time do you have before you need to produce something for your editor?
- Should you take photos at the scene?
- How do you approach potential sources who may be experiencing a stress or trauma reaction (as a result of grief)?
AT THE SCENE THURSDAY, 11:30 A.M. (20 minutes)
The intent of this section of the exercise is to get students to commit to a short story for the website and to have a discussion about what include in that story. Possible questions to discuss:
- When is it appropriate to cover suicides as news events?
- What do you know “for sure” about what’s occurred at Alpha Alpha Alpha? Is that enough to file a story for the website?
- If you decide to proceed with a story, what should it include given what you think you know? Is there any information about which you should be wary? (Should you include the information from Bethany?)
- What are the pros and cons of using off-the record sources like Bethany? Should you allow sources to set the ground rules in an interview? Why or why not?
- You have photographs from the scene. Do you use them?
- How do The Times’ rocky relationships with the Greek system fit into your decisions?
BACK AT THE OFFICE THURSDAY, 1 P.M. (50 minutes)
The focus is reporting and writing the article for Friday’s paper, assuming that you’ve concluded previously that The Times needs to cover this story. The important decisions are what information to include. The discussion could explore the following:
- How do you handle the identification of the woman who has taken her own life? Should you use the name in your article? [The confirmation was not pristine. That is, Stinson didn’t realize he was talking to a reporter.]
- How should you handle the information about the note?
- When, if ever, is it appropriate to use information from Facebook? What are the advantages or dangers of using information from Facebook? How might Facebook be used a reporting tool? It’s a means to identify friends. What are the potential benefits and risks of using Facebook friends as sources?
- Should you use photos with the story? If so, which ones? Should you use photos from Marten’s Facebook page?
- Do you want to include “helpline” information for individuals who may need formal or informal counseling to deal with their reactions to the death?
BACK IN THE OFFICE, FRIDAY 1 P.M. (75 minutes)
This session focuses on how to begin a second-day story and what to say – or not to say – about the suicide. An obvious second-day angle for Monday’s article would be the memorial gathering. Additional questions to consider:
- How much information should you provide about the circumstances of Marten’s death and the discovery of her body? What information from the coroner should you use?
- Would you approach her sister for your story?
- What should you say about why she may have taken her own life? How much of the information from Wong is appropriate?
- What information from Facebook tributes might be appropriate to use? Should you approach potential sources through Facebook?
- Have you missed any crucial sources?
- What contextual or background information about suicide might it be useful to include?
As the students discuss how to report and write this article, the issue of contagion – of copycat suicides – also should be considered. And this would be a good opportunity to discuss some of the suggestions on language from the recommendations students have read.
We recommend a final debriefing on the simulation. The goal would be to have students reflect on decisions that they’ve made. They should be encouraged to review all the key decisions that they’ve made about coverage of the suicide, reflecting on circumstances that might have caused them to go in a different direction. For example, you could ask whether The Times should cover a student suicide at an off-campus apartment.
Students also should consider the impact that the suicide might have on reporters who cover it. A suicide is a traumatic event. Some reporters may themselves experience stress reactions when covering such a story. Watch for such reactions on the part of your students, and make sure they receive support in dealing with their emotions.
Last, share ideas for other stories that need to be done on the topic. The event may provide a rationale for a broader examination of suicide on campus or suicides as a leading cause of death among young people.
Also contributing to this project were: Meg Spratt, director, and Sue Lockett John, research associate, of Dart Center West, developing academic programs and coordinating Dart Center programs in the western U.S.; Joan Connell, associate director for the Dart Center, and Elana Newman, Dart Center research director and McFarlin Chair of Psychology at the University of Tulsa.
This curriculum module is a product of Randal Beam's Dart Academic Fellowship, held at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in June, 2010.