Responsible coverage of suicides
How do you report on suicides without causing unnecessary pain to the victim’s relatives? Or worse, inadvertently helping to cause “copycat” suicides?
By Perry Catlin
Perry Catlin is editor of the Georgetown (MA) Record. She is the former editor of the Ipwich (MA) Chronicle .
Author bio information is from the time of article submission and may not be current.
Source: FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics, vol. 1, no. 3 (June 1989), p. 7.
This case was produced for FineLine, a publication of Billy Goat Strut Publishing, 600 East Main Street, Louisville, Kentucky 40202. Reprinted with the permission of Billy Goat Strut Publishing. This case may be reproduced for classroom and research purposes. Publication of this case in electronic or printed form requires written permission from the publisher and Indiana University. An exception is granted for use in readers designed for specific academic courses.
He killed himself on a Saturday, four days before the newspaper’s deadline. By the time we’d pasted up Wednesday night, we were grateful for the time.
Todd, a 14-year-old freshman at Ipswich (Massachusetts) High School, shot himself at home one morning in March, 1985. I was editor of the Ipswich Chronicle at the time, a weekly newspaper covering the North Shore seacoast community.
North Shore Weeklies, the parent company of the Ipswich Chronicle, had an unwritten policy about suicides: If the person who killed himself was a public official, or if he killed himself in public, we covered it and called it suicide. If we knew it was a suicide but the person was relatively unknown in the community and he did it privately, we wrote a straight obituary, leaving out cause of death.
It was clear that we would report on Todd’s death and call it suicide. But it was not clear how extensively we would cover the story or where it would run.
When we began dealing with the story, the editor-in-chief and I disagreed with the newspaper chain’s publisher/owner on how to cover it. Selma Williams, the editor-in-chief, and I thought the coverage should be fairly low-key, but Bill Wasserman, always mindful of the competition, two daily papers, was worried the dailies would cover it extensively.
Selma, Bill and I discussed the story from all angles. Todd did not shoot himself in public. But he was a high school student and the school was buzzing with the news. In addition, Ipswich High School observed a moment of silence in his memory. The story had become a public event.
While we continued to argue about the story, one of the daily newspapers came out with a front-page lead story reporting the death. “Ipswich High School student shoots himself,” the headline blared in 48-point type.
About an hour after that paper hit the street, I got a call from Dick Thompson, superintendent of Ipswich schools. He was very upset by the daily’s headline and he wanted to know how we were planning to run the story. I said we hadn’t made a firm decision; did he want to talk with our publisher? I pushed that huddle because I thought it would be helpful if Wasserman could hear Thompson’s side.
Thompson swayed Wasserman, who seemed now to lean toward calling Todd’s death suicide but leaving out quotes about him from classmates and teachers.
Wasserman decided to call a local psychiatrist, Dr. Howard Stone, who often worked with adolescents, and explained our predicament.
Stone gave us new information. He said he was aware of a possible suicide pact, where other students had agreed to kill themselves if one did it.
We now realized even more that we were carrying an enormous responsibility. Stone understood our needs and agreed that it would be irresponsible, and perhaps, even more upsetting to other unstable youngsters if we ignored the story.
We thanked Stone and huddled again, this time coming up with a mutually agreeable solution. In the middle of page two, with a two-deck, 24-point headline, we ran a short, straightforward story telling what had happened. The other obituaries ran farther back in the paper.
On the editorial page, we ran a lead editorial about an unrelated story. The second and third editorials were about teenage suicide.
The first one carried the headline, “Looking for answers in the wake of tragedy.” It started, “Suicide – chosen death – has shaken Ipswich this week.”
“… What everyone faces after a suicide is a feeling of helplessness about the death that has occurred. But what becomes critically important is that we use our best resources to avert any additional tragedy.”
That editorial praised the high school administration for reaching out to other students “who may feel despair.” It continued in part, “The school’s example can be a model for the whole community. Counseling can help…”
The next editorial was called, “Help is available.” It was boxed in 4-point broken tape, encouraging readers to clip it. There, we listed resources for those who contemplate suicide, and we included names and phone numbers.
It was one of the those stressful, wrenching times when you put in fifteen hours for six inches of copy. But the effort was well worth it. We didn’t hear a single complaint from the community, the superintendent and the consulting psychologist even complimented our coverage. Most important, we believe we did the right thing.