News coverage of high-profile suicides sparks debate about journalism ethics

"There's a lot of room to grow for how media cover this in a way that reduces the risks of other deaths," one advocate said.
by Daniel Arkin /  / Updated 

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The deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain this week have put fresh scrutiny on how the news media covers suicides — journalistic choices that mental health experts and researchers say could have life-or-death consequences for readers.

In recent years, public health studies have found an association between news reports about suicides, especially those of high-profile public figures, and an increase in suicide deaths. That troubling link has led many groups, including the World Health Organization, to suggest guidelines for reporting on people who take their own lives.

But some prominent voices in the media and medical professions want to go one step further, pressing for standardized rules — something akin to a journalistic Hippocratic Oath — that can be formalized in newsrooms across the country.

"If it's not institutionalized, we're going to see this up-and-down cycle" where news editors and writers show varying degrees of sensitivity around suicide reporting, said Kelly McBride, the vice president of the Poynter Institute, an organization that teaches journalistic ethics and practices.

"In the same way [journalists] know not to libel people or know the rules around anonymous sources, best practices around covering suicides" would be one more sacrosanct part of newsroom culture, McBride said.

McBride has worked closely for years with Dr. Dan Reidenberg, executive director of the suicide prevention organization Save.org, to help journalists find responsible ways to cover the issue. Reidenberg, who is also the lead author of the website ReportingonSuicide.org, has published guidelines drawn from scientific research.

The guidelines, among other recommendations, encourage journalists to avoid sensationalism and alarmism, refrain from specific detail about the manner of death, use neutral headlines ("John Doe, dead at 60"), draw attention to warning signs, investigate recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and generally offer hope.

McBride and Reidenberg both suggest that news outlets include phone numbers and links for suicide hotlines and treatment centers. (NBC News has included such information in its articles about Spade and Bourdain, and the network's News Standards division has issued reporting guidance.)

"There's a lot of room to grow for how media cover this in a way that reduces the risks of other deaths," Reidenberg said. "But at the same time, there is more sensitivity and conscientiousness around this today because many people in newsrooms have been impacted personally by suicides."

Reporting on suicides has long been a divisive practice in newsrooms, and some publications had a policy against covering them.

"In the old days, suicide was considered taboo to write about," said Meg Kissinger, a veteran investigative reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel who is writing a book about suicide. "But now, in an age when people are encouraged to talk openly about mental illness, newsrooms seem to be more open."

Sensitive coverage of suicides is necessary to prevent suicide contagion — a phenomenon in which exposure to suicide through someone’s family, peer group, or through the media increases the odds of other people harming or killing themselves, said John Draper, the director of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

“Whenever we lose somebody close to us to suicide, it affects us all greatly,” Draper said. “But even though we don’t know people like Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain personally, because of our familiarity with their products, their shows, we develop some type of relationship with them in some way, so it’s very personal.”

Without careful reporting, news of a suicide can disturb those who are already feeling vulnerable and hopeless, he added. “It can model for them how to deal with that hopelessness in the most negative and tragic way,” he said.

Tom Namako, the head of breaking news at Buzzfeed, said the newsroom staff "thinks really deeply" about how to cover suicides.

Buzzfeed journalists have a high bar for when to report on someone who has taken their own life, he said — and do so only if the person is a recognizable public figure or part of a wider national news story, such as online trolling and bullying.

Namako said the discussion of recent suicide coverage that circulated on social media was productive.

"We should be critiquing each other," Namako said.

If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, text TALK to 741741 or visit SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for additional resources.

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