John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to jemcintyre@gmail.com, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog/ and now at www.baltimoresun.com/news/language-blog/.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Writing about suicide

More than four dozen people have leapt to their deaths since 1964 from the Cold Spring Canyon Bridge in the mountains outside Santa Barbara, California. Mental health advocates and law enforcement officials want to install a nine-and-a-half-foot safety rail to make suicide attempts more difficult. But nothing in America is simple, and preservationists and others oppose the barrier.

Noozhawk, Santa Barbara’s enterprising electronic journalism site, opens a four-day series on the issue today. William Macfadyen, Noozhawk’s publisher and a colleague from the American Copy Editors Society, has asked me to comment on the journalistic issues and standards involved in reporting on suicides and suicide attempts.

I am not an expert on the matter, but I am willing to write what I know and invite informed parties to comment.

(1) Suicide is a private matter — except

Ordinarily, a news publication treats suicides and suicide attempts as private matters, mental and emotional disorders being as inherently private as any other illness or disorder. Not our business.

But in news obituaries, as distinguished from paid obituaries in which the families include only the information they choose to disclose, the publication gives a cause of death. That is part of the news, even if the families and friends are reluctant.

When I started at The Flemingsburg Gazette forty-two years ago, no one died of cancer. Obituaries said that people died “after a long illness,” because having cancer was a stigma, a source of fear. Later, in the 1980s, deaths from AIDS-related illnesses carried a similar stigma. And mental and emotional disorders continue to be things people prefer not to speak about. Journalism, by reporting with common sense and restraint about stigmatized things, airs them for public discussion and understanding.

(2) Suicide is not to be sensationalized

When a person commits suicide publicly, it can no longer be considered a private matter. But common sense and restraint are still necessary.

It is commonly understood now, for example, that a suicide by a teenager can touch off a cluster of similar attempts among other adolescents undergoing emotional upheavals. In these cases in particular, it is important for articles to be factual and dispassionate to avoid stimulating imitations.

Mr. Macfadyen tells me that some media outlets writing about the Cold Spring Canyon Bridge have used headlines or labels including “Bridge of Despair” and “Leap of Faith.” You can publish just about anything in America, but this is cheap and distasteful. Anything that serves to romanticize or dramatize suicide could have the effect of encouraging the emotionally vulnerable to see it as a glamorous act.

(3) A personal note

My son, J.P., fell into a profound depression in college and attempted suicide. It scared the hell out of my wife and me, and we did our best to get him help. He withdrew from college and came home. We found an incomparable therapist in Dr. Roger Harris (previous therapists not having connected effectively with J.P.), who, combining drug therapy and talk therapy, brought J.P. through.

J.P. returned to St. John’s College and graduated a year ago. He has also graduated from therapy and has been off antidepressants for several months. He is alive, and he has a life ahead of him.

I asked him this morning whether he would object to my writing about him in this post, and he encouraged me to do so. Depression is terribly isolating, he said, and the stigma about mental illness reinforces the isolation. The more people can talk openly and factually about it, he said, the better off everyone will be.

(4) Over to you

I encourage you to read the Noozhawk series, which raises issues with an impact well beyond Santa Barbara, and I invite you to comment here on suicide and journalistic standards and practices.


9 comments:

  1. John:
    Thank you for bringing up this topic. I ran across these guidelines on reporting on suicide years ago: http://www.afsp.org/index.cfm?page_id=0523D365-A314-431E-A925C03E13E762B1. This also links to a larger report from the Annenberg Public Policy Center.

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  2. I heard that years ago the San Francisco / bay area newspapers stopped publishing the number of Golden Gate jumps. Apparently, when word got around that there had been 999 bridge suicides, there was a mad race to be the 1000th.

    It's good to hear that (at least in the past) there were standards against getting cheap headlines at the clear expense of lives. These days I'm not so sure, especially in TV "journalism."

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  3. John, first let me say that your son is brave and compassionate in agreeing to let you share his story here. Depression is a debilitating disease that has myriad causes and, therefore, no single successful treatment. Worse, too frequently the victim is blamed for having the disease — called lazy, lacking in common sense, or unmotivated.

    As isolating as depression can be, suicide is painfully isolating for those close to the victim. When we hear of others who endure this experience, that feeling of isolation erodes a bit, if only from the compassion we feel for them. So for news reports not to conceal that a death was by suicide is a good thing.

    On the other hand, what should go without saying unfortunately cannot: Omit the details of the method. Too much detail causes pain for many whose loved ones used similar methods and might provide a model that others will follow.

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  4. Patrick K. LackeyMay 3, 2010 at 11:40 AM

    Congrats on your job. In journalism the ratio of job hunters to job finders is sickenly high.

    It was brave of you to write of your son's suicide attempt.

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  5. I was very moved by your posting today. My personal experience with suicide has been difficult at times, often aided in that difficulty by the ignorance demonstrated in the media. I'm glad you were asked to comment on it; your values will help to overcome some of the flaws of the past. I agree with Cliff; it is good to identify the situation, but it is tragic to dwell on the method.

    My deepest respect to JP for his willingness to have you talk about this. It is clear that he is a healthy young man, thanks to lots of support from people in his life like you.

    I will accept your challenge and write a piece for The Penultimate Word about this topic.

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  6. Patricia the TerseMay 4, 2010 at 2:32 AM

    While the number of people who attempt to kill themselves in the same place can hardly be kept out of the news, the names of victims should be.The families of those people have troubles enough, without adding publicity to the tragedy. Any news organization that prints names of suicide victims ought to be put out of business. (Cornell University has such an alarming percentage of students who attempt to kill themselves by leaping into one of Ithaca's many ravines, that the University now includes the information in their brochure. This must be welcome news indeed to parents of high school seniors looking for an Ivy League college.)

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  7. Here in Australia, I've noticed nearly all press articles about suicide will mention phone numbers and website addresses for the Beyond Blue and Lifeline suicide prevention organisations.

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  8. My experience in the TV news business is that suicides were never covered unless they were murder-suicides, the end of a police chase or a public figure.

    I covered the suicide of Football Coach Tony Dungy's son a few years back. That's allowed because it's kind of a public figure.

    I covered a story about a body discovered in a hotel. But as soon as the police ruled it a suicide, I packed up and headed elsewhere...but not to eat. Any reporter will tell you that it's tough to eat after some stories.

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  9. Here in Australia, I noticed nearly all of these kind of articles about suicide for the Beyond Blue and Lifeline suicide prevention organizations.

    Flower to Pakistan

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