An adviser on the College Media Advisers listserv recently posed a question about how student newspapers should treat suicide.
This passage is taken from The Student Newspaper Survival Guide
Deciding whether and how to cover a suicide is one of the most common and most poignant ethical dilemmas a student editor may face. And unlike with many other ethical issues, looking to the professional press isn’t necessarily instructive. Most professional newspapers don’t cover suicide unless:
• it causes a public spectacle (a jump onto a freeway streaming with cars, for example, or after a standoff with police)
• it’s committed in connection with a homicide, kidnapping or other serious crime
• it involves a public figure
Student newspapers, however, frequently do cover suicides of students or faculty, particularly if they happen on campus. Why? For one thing, the suicide of a member of the campus community often has significant impact on a large segment of the school--an entire academic department or a whole dorm may feel traumatized by the event.
For another, suicide is a major social problem among college students (it’s the third leading cause of death among 15- to 24-year-olds, after accidents and homicide, according to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services), and many student newspapers use a suicidal incident as a news peg for an educational piece about the problem.
A year after a freshman at Northwestern University killed himself in his dorm room, for example, The Daily Northwestern ran a seven-part series on mental health. The series, “State of Mind,” looked at eating disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorders and mental health care, as well as depression and suicide.
“There were all these issues that didn’t find a place in our regular news coverage,” says Elaine Helm, who worked on the series in the fall of 2003 and became editor-in-chief of the newspaper the following year. “We wanted to find an appropriate way to reflect on those issues and find a context for this one incident that touched so many lives.” The series won several awards, including one from the National Mental Health Association.
When deciding whether to cover a suicide in your own paper, ask yourself these questions:
• Was the suicide committed on campus?
• Was the suicide committed in a public place, such as a park or downtown street?
• Was the student or faculty member prominent on your campus?
• Does the suicide appear to be part of a trend?
• Will coverage of the suicide help the campus community in any way?
If the answer to one or more of these questions is yes, your newspaper may decide it’s important to run a story.
Some newspapers also consider the family’s wishes when deciding whether to write about a suicide. Journalists rarely contemplate the impact their stories will have on family members, but in the case of a suicide, editors may want to take into account how open the family is to talking about the circumstances of the death.
Another factor to consider is the risk of “suicide contagion” or copycat suicides. Researchers have found that suicides tend to increase when a particular incident gets a lot of media play. This copycat phenomenon is particularly evident when coverage is sensational and when media stories highlight the mode of suicide. For example, in the year after a student fell to his death at New York University, four other students there took their lives the same way.
The Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma offers these guidelines for covering suicide.