Covering Campus Suicide

A three-part curriculum to help prepare journalism students for the difficult process of covering suicide on or near a college campus.


This learning activity is designed to help prepare journalism students for the difficult process of covering suicide on or near a college campus. It is built around a classroom scenario that unfolds over time and requires students to apply background readings, make real-time decisions and produce breaking news and a follow up story. It includes instructor guidelines with a suggested timeline, tips and discussion questions. The resource list includes readings and websites for understanding and reporting on suicide.  The scenario is fictional, although it has been informed by accounts of suicides on college campuses during the last few years.

In this module, students will:

  • Gain a basic understanding of suicide, including an elementary grasp of the psychology and motives or reasons behind it.
  • Develop an awareness of the ethical and practical issues that arise when the news media cover a suicide. 
  • Discuss whether it’s appropriate to use social media (i.e. Facebook) in such stories.
  • Discuss how to approach grieving family members and friends.
  • Write a “breaking story” for a website and longer articles for print.

This curriculum module is a product of Randal Beam's Dart Academic Fellowship, held at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in June, 2010.

Instructor's Guidelines and Timeline

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.

  1. BACKGROUND (about 5 minutes)
  2. AT THE SCENE THURSDAY, 11:30 A.M. (about 20 minutes)
  3. 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)


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?


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.



You are a general-assignment reporter for a campus newspaper, The Student Times.  The paper serves about 15,000 undergrads, 2,000 grad students and 1,500 full- and part-time faculty and staff at Midwestern University, an urban campus in Cityville. 

The Student Times is published Monday through Friday. The paper circulates about 8,000 copies to campus buildings, to fraternities and sororities and to businesses such as coffee shops and convenience stores in neighborhoods near the university. The paper also has a website that can be updated at any time. It gets several thousand hits a day.

Midwestern University has a diverse student population.  The largest percentages of undergraduate and graduate students are Caucasian, and the second-largest percentages are African American. About 5 percent of the student body is composed of international students.  The Times staff is diverse in its race and ethnicity but has few students who are part of the university’s large Greek system. In fact, the relationship with the Greek system is touchy, as the paper has published series from time to time that point to problems in Greek system. The paper routinely deals with the campus police, including Public Information Officer Betsi Jorgensen.

It’s 11 a.m. Thursday. Your editor assigns you to check out an anonymous tip that a woman has died at the local chapter house of Alpha Alpha Alpha sorority. The person calling with the tip suggests that the woman may have taken her own life.

After getting your assignment, you head to the sorority, mindful that The Times has a 7 p.m. deadline for the paper but a continually updated website.  You do not take a photographer but do you have your mobile “smart phone,” which has a camera.


You arrive at Alpha Alpha Alpha. Three police cars are parked outside the house, and crime-scene tape is across the front entrance to the building. You approach an officer standing near the front door, identify yourself as a reporter for The Times and ask what’s happened. She tells you that police are conducting an investigation and suggests that you contact the department’s public information officer, Betsi Jorgensen, if you want additional information. The officer then asks you to step away from the door. 

You take pictures of the building and of the crowd milling outside. You notice that women, some of whom appear to be crying, are entering through a rear door to the sorority.  You unobtrusively take pictures of them as they approach the building.

You begin interviewing people who have gathered at the scene, drawn by the police presence.  One student – not a member of the sorority – says that she had a text from a friend who knew a member of the sorority. The text said that a body had been discovered in the house earlier in the morning and that there were rumors that an Alpha Alpha Alpha member had taken her own life. The student refuses to give you her last name but says her first name is Bethany. She also says it would be OK for you to call her back later in the day and gives you the number to her mobile phone.

Using your own mobile phone, you check the sorority’s Facebook page.  It has this statement:

“Today we are mourning the death of one of our sisters.  Please respect our privacy in this time of sorrow.”

It’s now 12:30 p.m. Your editor texts you and asks when you will have a story for The Times’ website and what it will say.  What do you tell the editor?


At the office, you start making calls, taking a one-hour break to attend your 2:30 p.m. class.

  • You call Jorgensen. She confirms that a death occurred at Alpha Alpha Alpha.  She says that the dead person has been identified as a sorority member. She won’t give you the name of the deceased until the family has been notified.  She confirms that the body has been removed from the house and taken to the coroner’s office, but she will not provide additional information until officers at the scene have written their incident report.  She guesses that won’t be done until around 8 p.m. tonight, or perhaps later.
  • You call the sorority house phone, but there’s no answer.  You find the name of the president (Marti Smith) online and send an e-mail. You receive an automatic reply that says: “I have no comment at this time on recent events that have occurred at Alpha Alpha Alpha.”
  • You call the coroner’s office.  A spokesman confirms that an autopsy will be performed.  No additional information at this time.

About 3:30 p.m., you check a reverse phone directory and learn that the number for Bethany, the student whom you interviewed earlier, is registered to Bethany Anne Fletcher. You call Fletcher, who answers and confirms her full name. She tells you that she has heard more about the death, including a name for the woman who died. She agrees to tell you what she’s heard if you agree not to identify her as your source. Though you know that could limit your ability to use the information she might supply, you agree. 

Fletcher says a friend in the sorority told her that the dead student’s name is “Melanie Martin” – she’s not sure how to spell the name – and that one of Martin’s sorority sisters found her in her room.  She was not breathing.  An empty prescription bottle of sleeping pills was found near her. The sorority sister – Bethany doesn’t know her name – called 911.  According to Bethany, her friend said the sorority sister also found a note near the body.  Bethany’s friend said the sorority sister didn’t talk specifically about the contents of the note but said that it suggested the woman had taken her own life.

You check the university student database and do not find a Melanie Martin.  You do find this entry:  Melanie Marie Marten, a junior majoring in sociology.

You hurriedly search Facebook and find a Melanie Marten at Midwestern. Marten has described herself as a double major in anthropology and sociology.  The page makes a reference to her 21st birthday last month. She has 53 friends. From other posts on the page, you infer that she has a younger sister at the university; is active in two university clubs (U-Recycle and a co-ed inter-mural softball team); and is a member of Alpha Alpha Alpha.

You search Facebook memorial pages for “Melanie Marten” and “Mel Martin.” You find a handful of tributes mourning the death of Mel Martin. Some of the tributes are from people who have identified themselves as Midwestern University students.

You place one more call to Jorgensen’s office.  She doesn’t answer, but an officer who identifies himself as Billy Stinson does. He says Jorgensen is away from the desk, getting dinner. You ask him if the dead student at Alpha Alpha Alpha is Melanie Marten.  It sounds as if he puts his hand over the phone, asks someone else that question and confirms that it is.  You ask for the cause of death, and Stinson realizes that you’re a reporter.  He tells you that all information about the “incident” at Alpha Alpha Alpha must come from Jorgensen, and he hangs up.

It’s 5:30 p.m.  Your editor wants a story for tomorrow’s paper.  Based on what you’ve learned so far, what will it say?


Though The Times doesn’t publish weekend editions, you have begun to work on your article for Monday’s paper.  (If warranted, you’ll also update The Times website.)

Your first task is to visit Jorgensen, the public information officer.  Detectives have filed their incident report, which is a public document that you can read.  You ask for it. Jorgensen also has notes from the detectives’ investigation, and she’s willing to share some information from those notes.  You learn the following:

From the incident report:

  • The name of the dead student: Melanie Marie Marten.  She is 21, and her official residence was Alpha Alpha Alpha.  Marten was found unconscious about 9:30 a.m. on Thursday by a roommate.  The roommate’s name has been redacted.  Marten was taken to Cityville General Hospital. She was pronounced dead about 11:15 a.m.  A note and two empty prescription bottles were found near the body.

From an interview with Jorgensen:

  • The police are not conducting a criminal investigation of the death. Detectives tentatively believe the cause of death to be suicide.  They suspect Marten died of an overdose of prescription drugs, though the coroner’s office will determine the official cause of death.

From a colleague at The Times and from Facebook tributes, you get the names of two more women who are members of Alpha Alpha Alpha – Cheriya Brown and Megan Wong.  You call the sorority and ask to speak to either of them or to Smith, the sorority president.

Smith comes to the phone.  She agrees to talk with you if you agree to put in the paper that a short memorial gathering will take place Monday at 6:30 p.m. outside the sorority, which is at 16th Street and Main Street.  You agree.

From an interview with Smith:

  • The Monday gathering will celebrate Marten’s life; Marten was a double major in anthropology and sociology; she has a sister, Jordan, who was her roommate and also is a member of the sorority; the information on Facebook about the two clubs to which Marten belonged is correct; she had been a member of the house since coming to Midwestern two years ago. She will not speculate on why Marten took her life or discuss the note or prescription bottles.  She won’t give you the phone numbers for Brown and Wong but agrees to ask them to call you.

Wong calls back about an hour later. 

From an interview with Wong:

  • She was Marten’s best friend; Marten was a wonderful, caring sorority sister who was liked by everyone in the sorority.  Quote: “Everyone wanted to be her best friend.”
  • Marten had been “hit hard” by the death of a friend, Trevor Johnsen, in a traffic accident two months ago.  Quote:  “She was never the same after that. Mel and Trevor were like brother and sister.”
  • Marten also had hurt her back during a volleyball game three weeks ago and had been taking painkillers for the injury.  After telling you this, Wong asks for this to be “off the record.”
  • Next, you re-check Marten’s Facebook page, which remains open.  You see that a number of publicly accessible Facebook “notes” are excerpts from an equally accessible blog, which, while anonymous, seems to belong to her. It has several recent emotional posts about Johnsen, the last of which appears to be a poem on death.  You also find a number of photos of Marten, also publicly accessible.  You look again at the growing number of tributes to Marten on her Facebook page. Here are three that catch your eye:
  • From Emily Masterson: “Mel is in a better place.  She’s gone, but at least she’s not in pain. She’s with Trevor.”
  • From Doug Bidder: “God has called Mel.  Finally, peace be with her.”
  • From Marti Smith: “Come to a celebration of our sister’s life.  Monday at 6:30 outside the house.”

You contact the coroner, Louise Smythe.  She has ruled the death suicide.  She says Marten died of an overdose – probably 25 pills of the painkiller Oxycodone. 

You want to write the majority of your story this afternoon. Who else should you interview? What should your story say? What would be appropriate visuals for your story?

This curriculum module is a product of Randal Beam's Dart Academic Fellowship, held at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in June, 2010.

Resource List

Suicide remains the third leading cause of death for young people aged 15-24 in the U.S. and the 10th leading cause for all other ages, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, so developing a basic grasp of the topic is essential for working and student journalists. The following resources will help both students and instructors approach the topic in a knowledgeable, if introductory, manner.

Understanding Suicide:

For background on suicide and its causes, these books are readily available in most public or university libraries.

Joiner, Thomas. "Myths about Suicide." Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2010.

Joiner works through some of the preconceptions and misperceptions of what suicide is and whom it affects, debunking and clarifying along the way; good for both instructors and students.

Marcus, Eric. "Why Suicide? Answers to 200 of the most frequently asked questions about suicide, attempted suicide, and assisted suicide." New York: HarperCollins, 1996.

An empathetic, brief and pragmatic overview of what suicide is, what causes it, its history, whom it affects, and a whole host of other questions; good for both instructors and students.

Shneidman, Edwin. "The Suicidal Mind," New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

An overview of suicide that utilizes case studies to break complex ideas down – good for students and instructors, if they have the time to delve into it. It’s the classic, written from the expert’s point of view.

Advice on Covering Suicide:

“Recommendations for Reporting on Suicide.” 2011. A two-year collaboration by 16 organizations involved in suicide prevention, has produced a concise, practical set of guidelines for the online media age (also listed in the student section below).  Their website also provides research citations, warning signs and the promise of further resources to come.

The Australian Government’s Mindframe National Media Initiative to encourage responsible, accurate and sensitive media representation of mental illness and suicide has two websites with guidelines, facts and counsel on covering suicide:

  • “Response Ability for Journalism Education:” (click on “Journalism,” then “Suicide”). The site includes a link to the downloadable 2010 international literature review on the effects of media reporting on suicide rates: Pirkis, Jane and Blood, Warwick. “Suicide and the news and information media: A critical review.” Mindframe National Media Initiative. February, 2010.
  • “Reporting Suicide and Mental Illness: A Resource for Media Professionals” (2004)
  • See also: Skehan, Jaelea, Lynette Sheridan Burns, and Trevor Hazell. “The Response Ability Project: Integrating the Reporting of Suicide and Mental Illness into Journalism Curricula.” Journalism & Mass Communication Educator. Vol. 64, no. 2 (2009): pp. 192-204.

Short preparatory/reference readings for students

Introduction to media coverage, responsibilities and guidelines

Deutschman-Ruiz. “Reporting on Suicide.” Dec. 17, 2003.

“Recommendations for Reporting on Suicide.” 2011.

Facts and figures

New York Times Health Guide to Suicide.

“Suicide in the U.S.: Statistics and Prevention” National Institute of Mental Health.

This curriculum module is a product of Randal Beam's Dart Academic Fellowship, held at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in June, 2010.