When a story source threatens suicide

“I’m going to kill myself!”

The story was wrapped up and ready for broadcasting. But the story could prompt the story’s subject to take his life.

By Mike Jacobs

Mike Jacobs anchors the 10p.m. news and heads the investigative unit at WTMJ-TV in Milwaukee.

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. 7 (October 1989), p. 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.

 

One story, two ethical decisions and a threat of suicide: a combination that would create a lively discussion in any newsroom.

It started as an intriguing tip: Two years ago, a suburban cop was fired because he was stopping teenage boys, threatening to give them speeding tickets, and then letting them go in exchange for sex. But the police chief did not refer the case to the district attorney for possible charges, avoiding embarrassing publicity for the department. Now, two years later, and in the wake of other allegations about a troubled police department, our sources wanted us to know about this episode.

We located two of the victims, and they confirmed what had happened. One victim, now 24 years old, even agreed to talk about it on camera, without having his identity concealed. He described, in detail, the sexual contact in the officer’s apartment when he was 19 years old.

But a few days later, the young man called us back. He’d changed his mind. He did not want to be on TV.

Ethical decision #1: Should we air the interview? He did the interview voluntarily. We had it “in the can.” He was not retracting his statement, simply asking that we not use his name or picture. We decided to use the interview, masking the man’s identity electronically. We did so because he was, essentially, a sexual assault victim, and we routinely withhold the names of such victims. Furthermore, it was his information that was important, not his identity.

Ethical decision #2 proved to be a lot more difficult. A week later, we tracked down the former officer, living in a small town 150 miles away. We surreptitiously took pictures of him working in his yard and then approached him for an interview.

When we told him why we were there, he immediately broke down. He asked to speak to me alone. He tearfully confessed to what he’d done, told me he’d tried to put that ugly period in his life behind him, and assured me he’d had no contact with teenagers since then. He said he’d been receiving counseling from a minister. And then he asked if we were going to put his story on TV.

When I told him why we were there, he said, and I’ll never forget his words: “Well, you’ve just made up my mind. I’m going to get my shotgun and go out into a farm field and kill myself. I hate myself for what I’ve done. My parents don’t know why I left town. And I can’t stand the thought of them finding out.”

I spent the next hour trying to talk the man out of committing suicide. I told him he shouldn’t do anything foolish since there was a chance the story might not air, that nothing he’d done was worth dying for. I coaxed. I cajoled. I pleaded. It was, perhaps the most difficult hour of my life.

He finally assured me he wouldn’t do anything until he’d heard from me. We left and went straight to his church. We told his minister about the suicide threat. The minister agreed to visit the man immediately.

We drove back to the newsroom for discussions with news management and the station attorney. Legally, the story was clean. We had all the facts nailed down, including a confession.

Journalistically, we had a good story. But ethically, we had a problem. Could we tell this story, knowing it might cause a man to take his life?

We wrestled with other questions as well: Was it still a story, since the incidents had happened a few years ago? If so, what was the most important part of the story? And was this man still using his authority to take advantage of teenagers?

We came up with these answers:

Because the officer had resigned, he was no longer in a position to use his badge to take advantage of teenagers. He had assured me he was not involved in activities that put him in contact with young people. And we knew, if we did a story, the D.A. would investigate to find out if he was telling the truth and letting him know he was being watched.

We decided it was still a story. But we believed an equally important part of the story was the fact that the police chief had allowed the officer to resign, without referring the case to the D.A.

Yet, we did not want to do a story, that might result in a man’s suicide.

We decided to air the story, withholding the former officer’s identity. We electronically altered our videotape of the man working in his yard so he could not be recognized. We notified him in advance, through his minister. In our story, we told the viewers about the sexual incidents. And we explained how the police chief had handled the case.

The D.A. immediately launched an investigation. Months later, after interviewing everyone involved, the D.A. decided he was not going to prosecute the former officer, so long as he had no further contact with teenagers. The D.A. criticized the police chief for the way he had handled the case. But the D.A. ruled the chief had not acted criminally.

The police chief, declaring himself cleared of criminal wrongdoing and citing his age, 55, immediately resigned.

The former officer did not kill himself.

We believe we handled this case responsibly. But there is a larger issue: Can the threat of suicide be enough to kill a story? If so, some important stories probably would go unreported. Each case, we decided, must be based on its own set of facts.

For further analysis of this issue, see “How to handle suicide threats.