By Joe Grimm
The connection between bullying and suicide is elusive, but news coverage of suicide has clearly become more acceptable.
Erosion of the old taboo leads to more coverage of suicides and the natural impression is that they must be increasing.
Main headline on front page describes a teen's death. Photo by Hayley Beitman
According to reports from the Centers for Disease Control, a decline in youth suicide rates from 1990 to 2003 was followed by a rise in 2004 and, from 1999 to 2009, attempts by students in grades 9–12 requiring medical attention decreased 26.9%.
However, suicide news has become more frequent and more prominent as newsrooms continue to relax what had been a largely unwritten rule against covering suicides.
The Hastings Star Gazette in Minnesota described its policy change in January, 2012.
The newspaper told readers, “Essentially, we were sweeping the problem under the rug.”
“This week we changed that policy. We will write about mental health issues in the police report … It’s a significant use of police resources, and the public ought to know how their department is spending its time. …
“The greater good in this, we hope, is that by telling you about these instances you’ll see how prevalent it is. You will have greater awareness about the ongoing struggles taking place in your community. Once you are armed with that information, we hope you’ll do what you can to help your fellow residents.”
The Star Gazette is not alone in relaxing this journalistic taboo.
In September, 2011, Toronto Star Public Editor Kathy English wrote, “If journalism’s first obligation is to tell the truth, why has the truth that some desperate people take their own lives been largely off-limits to journalists?
“For many years, the Star’s policy has been not to reveal that someone committed suicide unless there is some overriding public interest in doing so,” she wrote.
English described her early years learning the craft as a reporter and how she accepted the unwritten code of the newsroom to keep most suicides out of print.
She cited a 2010 article by an intern at the Ottawa Citizen who had once contemplated suicide and his first brush with the rule.
That intern, Liam Casey, later moved on to the Star, wrote for the Ryerson Review of Journalism and included an unusual call at the top of his article: “I contemplated killing myself five years ago. Now, to help others, I call on all journalists to break the silence on our final taboo.”
He described how he first learned about that taboo from police: “The newsroom buzzes when I arrive, or maybe that’s just my heart, fluttering away. (The assignment editor) tells me to follow up with police. About an hour later, the cops say he was a ‘jumper,’ but that’s just for my information since, the officer tells me, the paper doesn’t report suicides.”
Casey wrote that his editors, “tell me not to pursue it further. I move on to a story about a man trying to lure a child into his van near a public school. At least it means I can avoid writing about suicide.
“But I am confused, ignorant of the accepted practice of not reporting suicides.”
Casey added, “Suicide avoidance is a throwback to journalism’s dark days, a time when editors and news producers could choose to ignore unpleasant matters.”
The Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma helps journalists cover issues like suicide and bullying.
In an article for Dart about teen suicides, Brian Slodysko wrote, “many newspapers and media outlets have policies against covering the suicides of young people, especially if the death involves a minor.
“Though it’s a daunting task, and some editors are reluctant to cover suicide, does this mean the issue should be avoided by student journalists?
Slodysko argued in favor of reporting that runs down rumors, reveals social service needs and reports resources.
Newsrooms typically do not have big policy manuals on how to do their jobs. Sometimes, a newsroom will have a stylebook that dictates writing style and might include a few policies.
The Detroit Free Press stylebook of 1989 said, “We try to honor family requests that suicide not be identified as the cause of death in obituaries. Circumstances that put a self-inflicted death in the public eye, however, might merit its mention in a news story and elsewhere.”
The guideline did not appear in a 1992 revision of the stylebook, but the old taboo continued to hang in the air.
Besides the obvious issues of sensitivity and discomfort, journalists minimized suicide coverage out of concerns about “suicide contagion” — copycat suicides.
In a 2008 article for the Poynter Institute, a school for journalists, veteran TV newsman Al Tompkins began by saying flat out, “Journalists usually avoid suicide stories.” He then listed coverage guidelines from the American Association of Suicidology.
Three years later, Tompkins wrote about how Tampa’s lead TV station had started the evening news with the story of a 10-year-old who had died by suicide.
Tompkins did a video deconstruction of how the station told the story and concluded with “The one thing that would be worse than losing a young life is to lose it and learn nothing from that loss.”
Deconstruct WTVT’s Suicide Coverage from Poynter Institute on Vimeo.
Besides backing off on coverage of suicide, journalists have historically muted coverage of mental illness, sexual assault and AIDS. In each of those areas, the pendulum has swung toward greater disclosure.
In 2001, several U.S. health agencies issued guidelines for media coverage of suicide. The guidelines advised against prominent placement of the story and descriptions or photographs of suicide methods.
The guidelines also recommended that journalists avoid the phrases like “commit suicide,” “failed attempt” and “doing it for attention.”
A study by the U.S. National Institutes for Health of suicide coverage in 2002 and 2003 concluded, “Newspaper suicide stories from 2002 and 2003 did not show consistent adherence to the 2001 media guidelines …. Of particular concern is the absence of helpful suicide prevention information and resources, and the large number of stories that gave detailed information about suicide method and location. A positive trend was that very few suicide stories were on the front page.”
A relaxation of taboos against suicide coverage in some newsrooms would work against that trend.
A Tormenting Problem: An Exploration of New-Age Bullying, The Dart Center, 2011
The Power of a Bully, The Dart Center, 2010
Roanoke Times policy on suicide coverage, Roanoke Times, 2009
Suicide coverage always challenging by Therese Bottomly, The Oregionian, 2007
Covering Teen Suicide: One Paper’s Decision by Barbara Walsh, The Poynter Institute, 2005