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DEAR READER: How much detail is too much in reporting on suicides?

Friday, August 6, 2010 | 2:44 p.m. CDT; updated 12:20 p.m. CDT, Monday, August 9, 2010

Dear Reader,

Last week, I joined other news people to talk about how the press covers suicides.

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I learned more than I offered.

Before sitting down with the suicide prevention experts at a state convention, I reviewed past stories in the Missourian.

There were nine since 2006. They ranged from three-paragraph briefs to long news stories. One was a feature run four days after the suicide.

All fit the test for publication.

The Missourian publishes news of suicides only if the action is done in a public place, or if the person is a public figure. According to other panelists, that’s standard practice at television stations as well.

Most might not meet the first recommendation from the Suicide Prevention Resource Center: “Avoid detailed descriptions of the suicide, including specifics of the method and location.”

The center says providing detail increases the risk of imitators.

In almost every case, Missourian stories indicate method and place.

An example: “The cause of death was a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest.”

I wasn’t convinced that descriptions should be taken out of the stories, though I agreed they don’t need to dwell on particulars.

If suicide should be framed through the lens of a public health problem, and I think it should, then we as a community need enough detail to understand the event in a larger context.

A woman hanged herself in a jail cell this year.

If the details were removed, you wouldn’t have read this in the story:

“A study commissioned by the U.S. Justice Department’s National Institute of Corrections puts the suicide rate in county jails at 38 deaths per 100,000 inmates, approximately three times greater than that of the general population of the United States, and 93 percent of jail suicide victims were hangings.”

Missourian stories would have fared better against these suicide prevention center recommendations:

•    Don’t oversimplify the causes. As the center notes, most suicides are associated with mental illness or substance use. I tell reporters to avoid armchair analysis by the victim’s friends or associates.

•    Include hot line numbers and tips for recognizing warning signs.

But not so much with these:

•    “Avoid featuring tributes by friends or relatives.”

•    “Avoid using the words ‘committed suicide’ or ‘failed’ or ‘successful’ suicide attempt.” Committed, the center says, is a crime or sin kind of word, not one you would fit next to health.

I’m OK with saying a person “died by suicide.” Are you?

Check out all the center’s recommendations in the attached document.

******

As I was working on this letter, an expected visitor stopped by.

The sheriff’s deputy handed me a notice banning the Missourian “from taking photographs in the Boone County Courthouse or the grounds thereof for a period of 30 days.”

The notice also banned staff photographer Kerri Reynolds from the courthouse or its grounds for 60 days.

Both begin on Aug. 16.

Here’s why:

During a homicide trial in June, Reynolds took photographs that included jury members in the background.

You just can’t do that.

The action came despite warnings from Missourian editors and by the bailiffs at the courtroom. It came on the heels of a similar event in November by another staff photographer.

The Missourian and the staff photojournalism class at MU will make several changes to the instruction and selection of photographers for trials in the future.


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Comments

John Schultz August 6, 2010 | 3:01 p.m.

Tom, were the second set of pictures with jurors published somewhere, or was it just the act itself that made the courts grumpy?

(Report Comment)
Tom Warhover August 6, 2010 | 3:37 p.m.

No, the pictures weren't published anywhere John.

(Report Comment)
Carlos Sanchez August 6, 2010 | 3:38 p.m.

Nothing wrong with being overly conservative with this issue. Instead of saying things like "She or he hanged themselves" you could just say "it is suspected he or she ended their life" and until a coroner's inquiry that is all the Missourian can report. I do not personally think it is the public's interest to know the exact details. That is for officials and the family to know only. That latter is hard enough don't ya think?

(Report Comment)
Alysha Love August 7, 2010 | 12:35 p.m.

Nicholas Christakis, MD, PhD, and James Fowler, PhD, researched the way our relationships with others influence the way we live, then published a book called "Connected: The Amazing Power of Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives" (http://connectedthebook.com). One of their findings was that the way the media reported suicides affected the subsequent number of suicides. More suicides occurred after newspapers wrote feature stories about the life and death of the person who died as opposed to stories that were more clipped and straightforward.
This concept was documented by sociologist David Phillips in 1974, when the national suicide rate increased the month after the New York Times published a front page article "describing someone who had taken his own life."
I think it's important that we don't underestimate the power of the articles we write and how we write them. In this case, excessive media attention can create a positive view of suicide, which could thereby encourage more suicides.

(Report Comment)

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