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Columbia Missourian

Journalists urged to use caution when reporting suicides

By Tom Warhover
October 9, 2009 | 11:32 a.m. CDT

Dear Reader,

The Missourian this week ran two stories about the death of a teenager from Rock Bridge High School.

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This letter will mark the third time. I do so with caution and with a purpose: to explain when and why the Missourian covers suicides.

Suicide is still, in many ways, taboo, a topic spoken in whispers as if depression or other psychological causes were character flaws and not the medical conditions they are. Suicide is the third leading cause of death among teens, according to an article by The Associated Press in Friday’s Missourian.

The trend among newsrooms has been to be circumspect about running stories about suicides. There’s good reason. Citing health experts, the Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma says coverage can lead to copycat suicides, “especially if a suicide is portrayed as glamorous or romantic.”

You expect a newspaper to reflect the news of its community though. What to do?

The Missourian long ago adopted a policy similar to that of many newspapers. Essentially, it comes down to two phrases: public place and public person. “If a person takes his or her own life in a private way and a private place, we normally do not write a story,” the policy says. “If, however, the person is or has been a public figure — someone who has been in the public eye and whose death would be considered newsworthy — we will write the story.”

The policy doesn’t absolve an editor of judgment. Every death affects some number of people. It’s the size of the impact — the public-ness, if you will — that drives the decision.

So the Missourian this week ran a short news story on the death of Stuart Eiken, a former Rock Bridge football player whose number, 22, could be seen on players’ shoes and shirts and on cars around the school and around town.

Then it ran a larger piece the next day that combined reaction at the school with information normally included in an obituary. The article ran on the front page of the print and online editions Tuesday. Originally it was conceived as two pieces, a news story and a life story. (Missourian life stories go beyond standard obits. They’re more like feature stories.)

As the reporters were still doing interviews, I made the call on the piece's placement Monday afternoon at the regular planning meeting and agreed that combining the stories might be best.

The story couldn’t, and shouldn’t, try to explain his death. But a life story could explain Stuart’s life.

The piece fell somewhere in between.

Given what the reporters were able to piece together, I might not have run the article on the front page. I might have stopped a little longer, later in the day, to consider.

I would still have given the OK to run the story.

The national AP story Friday was accompanied with state statistics gathered by a Missourian editor. According the Missouri Department of Mental Health, in 2007 "there were 810 suicides in Missouri, or an average of one suicide every 10 hours and 49 minutes."

I wish it were an issue that would go away. It won't.

Tom