When Tragedy Hits the Newsroom

A year ago, KUOW radio host Dave Beck returned from a summer vacation to tragic news.

His friend and colleague Cynthia Doyon, longtime host of the KUOW program "The Swing Years and Beyond," had shot herself to death early one August morning not far from the NPR station's Seattle studios.

Doyon and Beck had known each other and worked together for almost 20 years. She had chosen and played music at his wedding. She had attended a party at his home the week before her death.

The news of her suicide was stunning, but the way Beck received the news helped — he received a personal, "very compassionate," phone call from program director Jeff Hansen.

"I'm really thankful Jeff contacted me at home," Beck told the Dart Center, noting that the personal contact helped ease him into the healing process.

When Hansen first heard the news of Doyon's suicide — inadvertently broken to him by a newspaper reporter calling to confirm her death — at first he didn't believe it. "It didn't compute . it didn't make sense to me," he remembers. But once he confirmed the information, he knew he needed to handle notifications to other staff members.

Hansen called a meeting. Knowing he didn't have all the answers himself, he arranged for a police representative and a grief counselor to attend. He began phoning staff members who were not at work, wanting to tell them about the suicide before they heard it through rumors or media reports.

Within hours of Doyon's death, many KUOW staff members had heard the news through first hand personal contact, and had support resources made available to them. The meetings continued throughout the week, both to offer support to Doyon's colleagues, and to plan collaboratively how and what to communicate publicly.

Noting that he had never experienced anything like Doyon's death before, Hansen said he and other KUOW staff members were "making it up as we went along," relying on good sense and a general knowledge of how to release information in an effective way.

As with Hansen, many news managers have had little formal guidance when it comes to breaking tragic news to survivors. The way news is broken, however, can be key to the acceptance and healing process, mental health experts say. It's important, for instance, to make the contact personal, to work quickly and to break the news without euphemisms.

In the occasional cases where news managers must break news of death to next of kin, the notification process becomes even more crucial. Grief counselors recommend that the news be delivered in person, by two people. Counselors warn to be prepared for a powerful, perhaps even violent reaction. And, they say, make sure you have adequate emotional support for yourself.

While telling colleagues of a staff members death may not be as emotionally raw as notifying next of kin, understanding these guidelines, and knowing what reactions to expect, is central to communicating the news in a way that doesn't do unnecessary harm.

In the case of Doyon's death, Hansen says he had to make some quick assessments while dealing with his own emotions. "I know my staff," he remembers thinking. "I know they're going to have lots of questions . we need to be prepared."

For more detailed information for journalists on breaking bad news to friends and family, see the BBC/Dart Centre guide "Breaking Bad News."