Sharing the community’s grief

Little Rock news coverage of three teen-age suicides

It was not a question of whether to report on the suicides of three Sheridan youths within hours of each other, but how to do it with the sensitivity the story — and the community — needed.

By Keith Moyer

Keith Moyer is editor of the Arkansas Gazette, Little Rock.

Author bio information is from the time of article submission and may not be current.

Source: FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics, vol. 2, no. 3 (June 1990), pp. 1, 8.

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.

 

The first to take his life was Thomas Smith of Sheridan, Arkansas. Smith stood up in front of his 11th-grade history class one Monday afternoon, professed his love for a girl sitting nearby and put a .22-caliber pistol to his forehead and pulled the trigger.

Later that day, at about 10 p.m., and after Little Rock television newscasts had reported Smith’s death, 19-year-old Thomas Chidester, a good friend of Smith’s, sat in his bedroom, placed a 45-caliber pistol to his temple and shot himself to death. A note he left behind said simply, “I can’t go on any longer.” His grandmother found his body about 3:30 a.m.

The following day, Jerry McCool, 17 years old and an acquaintance of Smith’s, went to his bedroom, put a .22-caliber pistol to his right temple and ended his life. He and his father had discussed the Smith boy’s suicide the night before.

With three teen-age suicides in 24 hours, editors at the Arkansas Gazette knew two things: One, we had a big story on our hands. And two, we would have to handle the story with as much sensitivity as possible while fulfilling our news coverage obligations in one of the most competitive newspaper markets in the country.

Reminding ourselves of studies that show “copycat” suicides occur sometimes after news coverage of such events, we decided to play down somewhat the story about the first boy, Thomas Smith. Editors at our competitor, the Arkansas Democrat, played the story at the bottom of their front page. We opted for the bottom of page 18, our metro/state front.

By late that Tuesday morning, we were aware of the second suicide, and later in the day, learned of the third.

And, as much as we didn’t want to overplay the story, competitive pressures, as well as the fact that it had grown into a national story, forced us to make it our lead story for Wednesday.

Yet we still talked a lot about the way we played that front-page story. I referred to guidelines based on a study of imitative suicides by Dr. David Phillips and Katherine Lesyna of the University of California at San Diego.

They said, in part:

  • The story should not be presented in a romanticized or idealized manner.
  • The story should mention alternatives to suicide (for example, counseling or a suicide prevention center) and not mention related suicides or a suicide epidemic.
  • The story should link suicide with negative outcomes such as pain for the suicide victim and his survivors.
  • The story should be short, placed on an inside page and not be repeated.
  • Editors should avoid presenting authorities or sympathetic ordinary people speaking for the reasonableness of suicide.
  • As our coverage developed throughout that week it became clear to me that we would be able to adhere to some of those guidelines but not to some of the others.

Looking at it, point by point:

  • The Gazette’s Sheridan suicide stories were not written in such a way so as to romanticize what had happened. Special care was taken by editors and reporters not to draw conclusions or to present images that attempted to justify the boys’ actions.
  • Numerous references were made to the need for education concerning suicide and stressing the importance of counseling for youths with emotional problems. We did not, could not, though, honor the suggestion that the suicides not be linked or painted as an epidemic. Gazette readers knew the story was a big one. Local and national TV newscasts were all over it. The other statewide paper, the Democrat, was linking the suicides on its front page as well.
  • Our stories and photographs of grieving parents and friends definitely linked suicide with negative outcomes.
  • Our stories, and there were many written to cover numerous angles that developed, weren’t necessarily short in length (though some were), but were only as long as they needed to be to tell all the facts. Many of our Sheridan suicide stories were placed on inside pages.
  • No “pro” suicide or sympathetic views were reported.

Also, we took every chance to take the edge off the otherwise grim situation. That’s why we ran a sensitively-written column by John S. Workman, the Gazette’s retired religion editor, on the same pages as our news coverage one day. The closing message to his column said: “Sheridan, you are loved. You are special. We need you. You need us. Together we can make it.”

In short, Gazette editors did their best to give the big story the play it deserved while making sure the coverage was not overblown or irresponsible.

Across Little Rock, editors at our competitor and news directors at the TV stations were doing the same thing.

Bob Lutgen, assistant managing editor of the Democrat, told the Gazette that they decided to play the story on the front page from Day 1, but not without some thought to the ramifications.

“I certainly don’t want to glamorize the tragedy of it, but it’s a big news story when you have a youngster kill himself in front of the class . . . and then two others follow,” Lutgen said. “It’s frightening.”

Bob Steel, news director at KARK-TV, Little Rock, said staffers talked a lot about how to properly play the story. But the bottom line was that it was a big story and had to be covered as such.

“There is this copycat syndrome and we were worried about that. I told reporters who were sent to the scene to be sensitive, to not be pushy in trying to get interviews,” Steel said. “But our position was that there was not a person in Sheridan who didn’t know that the suicides had occurred.

Hey, it happened and we covered it.”

All newspapers and TV stations in the market did a balanced job of giving readers and viewers lots of helpful information on how to spot teen-age depression, how to get counseling, etc., including KTHV.

John Rehrauer, the news director there, said, “There was good work on all the sidebars on TV and the newspapers, very helpful stuff,” Rehrauer said. “All in all, I thought there was pretty good restraint on the part of all the media here.”

I would tend to agree with that assessment. News organizations in Little Rock managed to keep readers abreast of the latest developments without being too dramatic or sensationalistic.

The Gazette offered its readers a Sunday front-page piece by a former staffer who lives in Sheridan. Bob Lancaster’s story painted nicely the mood of the close-knit community and put into perspective what the town was going through.

“How could such a thing be happening?” he wrote.

“By Wednesday, Sheridan was aswarm with inquisitive and sympathetic strangers asking such troubling questions. A caravan of out-of-town and out-of-state news reporters and photographers found their way into Sheridan, as did an even larger contingent of counselors and suicide-prevention specialists, some from as far away as San Francisco.”

His story made clear that the notoriety had not been sought by the people of Sheridan.

And while it was tough for Gazette reporters to intrude on their lives day after day for a week (there were isolated incidents where townspeople lashed out at newspeople) the story needed to be told.

At the Gazette we tried to do what was right — on the one hand, right by our readers who depend on the newspaper for the straight story, on the other hand, right by the people of Sheridan.

Under difficult circumstances, I believe the Gazette and all other news organizations in Little Rock met the challenge.

 

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