A Tip Sheet on Covering Suicide from Al Tompkins

Al Tompkins, a senior faculty member at the Poynter Institute, provides insight on how to report on suicide.


  • Seek truth and report it as fully as possible

  • Act independently

  • Minimize harm: cause only the harm necessary

  • Be accountable and accessible

Need to ask:

  • Why is this news?

  • How will we explain the story to stakeholders, including the police, hostages and ourselves?

  • How will we explain the story to the public?

  • Do we need to name the victim or family? Not always.

  • Could we suspend normal production guidelines, such as music?

  • What advice can we offer?


  • No need for adjectives like “tragic”; play it straight, we know it’s tragic.

  • Tone matters

  • The more detail you give, the higher the chance for copycat suicide

  • Limit details & don’t speculate

  • Teach: focus on the larger issue rather than individual death.

  • Usually there is a warning sign(s)

  • Be careful with file tape

  • We need context. This is a good time to use an expert. 

  • Summarize without the hype.

  • Seek trends rather than individual acts

Biggest mistakes:

  • Giving detailed information about how the person took his/her life because people will fixate on that

  • Simplifying the problem: there are almost never cases where a single issue leads to the decision to attempt suicide

  • Featuring a juvenile’s suicide without serious thought about whether to do so

  • Overplaying the reaction of shock and pain