Why we report on suicides

By Bill Felber

Of all the items that periodically cross an editor’s desk, easily the most contentious to deal with — and the ones I will be most happy to be shed of responsibility for when I turn this office over — are suicides.

There’s nothing new in that. More than a quarter century ago, when I was relatively new to this job, a long-time acquaintance and his children walked in to see me. Their wife and mother had driven up to the north end of Tuttle Creek Lake, parked her car and killed herself. What followed was a substantial amount of high-volume shouting, pleading and threatening, all of it aimed at getting us to not tell you that the cause of death was self-inflicted.

The question has reasserted its profile with a few recent suicides of people who had some visibility in the community, although as far as I’m concerned that fact is irrelevant to the underlying question. You may have asked it yourself. Why do we identify suicides? If a family or friend wishes that news not to be known, who are we to go against their wishes?

I know this question gets asked of others — the police, funeral homes, other news media outlets including some newspapers — because I’ve talked to all of them. Some, candidly have bowed to the more conciliatory approach demanded of them. From those demands arise euphemisms. The death was “not suspicious,” the cause is “not fully determined,” that sort of thing. The public treatment of a suicide becomes something very much akin to an open secret. You read the stories containing various winks and nods, all of them strongly suggesting that the writer knows something you’re supposed to pick up without the word itself being uttered. And that’s somehow supposed to make things right.

I’m not trying to be unsympathetic here, but I don’t buy it. Two reasons, fundamentally.

The first is that media, including but not only newspapers, operate on the basis of an implied contract with readers, listeners or viewers. These are the terms of the contract: You give us 75 cents ($1.50 on weekends) and we’ll tell you everything we know that’s going on. Not everything that somebody else is willing to let us tell you, not everything that might not hurt anybody’s feelings, not everything that won’t prompt somebody to complain, but everything we know. That may come across as cold, but I don’t know how intellectually you can take any other position without violating terms of the implied contract.

The second reason is my professional view, based on long and ongoing reading of published studies, that sunshine remains the best disinfectant. There have been a number of studies over the years, often by consortiums of journalism and mental health organizations, and they have agreed that the problem of suicide is not combated by pretending that it doesn’t happen.

Certainly there are guidelines to how one covers suicides, and we try to follow them. We try to be frank, straightforward, and we avoid details as to method along with sensationalist aspects. The latter is often a point of contention: I’ve been told on plenty of occasions that we “just wrote it up to make headlines so we can sell newspapers.” To this assertion I point out that we have a rule that suicide reports are not run on the front page. The exceptions are so rare as to be obvious: If a fellow drives the wrong way down I-70 in a deliberate effort to kill himself, and in the process kills somebody else, or if an accused rapist kills himself, then yes, those stories are going to find their way to A1. But such instances have been the rare, rare exceptions.

Here’s the bottom line as I see it. Suicide is a problem. I’ve never known a problem that can be dealt with by pretending it didn’t happen. That doesn’t mean your glorify it, that doesn’t mean you sensationalize the aspects of it. It does mean you deal with it frankly and in an adult fashion. That’s what we’ve done, and my hope would be that’s what this newspaper will continue to do.

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