Sometimes it’s good to remind yourself why you do things the way you do them. For many years now, I’ve had a policy of not publishing details about suicides. Not that we publish nothing at all, but we’re very careful about how we describe them. Sometimes, we simply pass up a suicide story.
Jim Harrison asked me to talk about the ethical issue of reporting suicides on his morning radio show, along with Charles Hays of the TRU journalism program. Charles and I were pretty much on the same wave length, preferring to treat the reporting of suicides very, very carefully.
At the Daily News, we seldom use the word suicide. If someone jumps off Peterson Creek bridge, we certainly report the story. If someone kills himself or herself in their own home, we probably won’t. In other words, public suicides aren’t ignored; private ones may well be.
There are two reasons for the sensitivity around reporting of suicides. One is the fear that it will generate copycat suicides. The other is concern for the privacy of friends and family — like it or not, there is a stigma attached to suicide.
Studies differ, but there’s some evidence that reporting of suicide details does result in more suicides. One study in the 1980s showed that when media stopped reporting suicides of people jumping in front of subway trains, the number of suicides of that nature dropped by 80 per cent. Of course, that doesn’t mean the actual number of suicides dropped; only that people stopped using subway trains to carry them out.
Some people think the media should report more on suicides, not less. This, they believe, would help remove the stigma, and would educate the public as to the reasons for suicides and how they can be avoided. I think the media can do that and still be sensitive to people’s feelings.
I remember some years ago when a prominent local resident discovered he was terminally ill. Rather than “be a burden,” or face the decline in health that would accompany his illness, he took his own life. It was an entirely rational, selfless act, but we didn’t report the details of how he died.
What would have been the benefit? Instead of being remembered for what he accomplished in the community, for all the good things he did in life, he would be remembered today as someone who killed himself.
There’s no right or wrong in how the media report on suicides, no clear ethical lines. Each medium does its best to act in deference to the sensitivities of its own community.