Covering suicide: do journalists exploit tragedy?

Stephen J.A. WardSuicides are often more than newsworthy, writes Stephen J.A. Ward, they challenge journalists to explore economic and social issues in their community. “Minimize harm” is the proper principle, not “do no harm.”

Reporters and their news organizations are frequently accused of exploiting people who are vulnerable, or in the grip of personal tragedy.  

The journalist is portrayed as a vulture swooping down to feast on the afflicted. Author Janet Malcolm once compared the journalist to “a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.”

Complaints of exploitation arise regularly — with every media frenzy, with every tragedy, with every callous act by a reporter.

Recently, there was controversy in Toronto when the news media reported that David Dewees, a high school teacher, committed suicide after being charged with using the Internet to attempt to lure two boys into sexual touching. The news media also has been criticized for reporting on the grief of families who have lost a child to the H1N1 virus.  

In both cases, members of the public complained that the news media used the tragedies to sell the news. Commentators called on the media to stop reporting such events, and follow the principle of “do no harm.” Reviewing the H1N1 coverage, one person asked the media to stop broadcasting images of the “sobbing parents.” The commentator concluded: “This is exploitation.”

The pain of publicity is real. But it would be a mistake to conclude that journalists should not cover these personal tragedies. Also, it is a mistake to see reporting on these tragedies as, unavoidably, exploitation. Whether it is exploitation depends on how the event is covered.

Take the case of suicides. To be blunt, suicides are frequently newsworthy – a public official in trouble commits suicide, a distraught military hero takes his life. But these cases are frequently more than newsworthy. They challenge journalists to explore the economic and social factors that may help to induce suicidal behavior. When we witness a string of suicides at a school or in an aboriginal community, suicide is no longer personal but social. It is the responsibility of journalists to explore the reasons for these disturbing patterns in the fabric of society.

Even when suicides are not part of a pattern, there are reasons for reporting them. Journalists should maintain a daily record of events so that uncomfortable topics are discussed publicly. In this way, suicides and the death of children to disease — and many other problems — are not hidden behind closed doors, leaving public discussion to feast on rumour and speculation.

Unfortunately, the glare of publicity must be endured.

When do we exploit?

Covering tragedies is not an act of exploitation.

Journalists can exploit people for dramatic interviews and emotional images. Any professional in whom some measure of trust has been placed can betray that confidence.

What counts as exploitation? To exploit is to unfairly use people in a less powerful position to achieve your own ends — without a thought to their needs and interests. As Kant famously said, the basic principle of all ethics is: Do not treat other people only as a means to your ends.

The word “only” is crucial. It acknowledges that we often legitimately use other people as a means to our goals. I use the garage mechanic as a means to fixing my car so I can drive to work, but I do not exploit him. I do not exploit people who work for me if I show them respect. That is, I do not harm their interests, and I adequately pay them for their work. In this way I treat people as both a means and an end-in-themselves.

In journalism, Kant’s principle works like this: In reporting on a person’s tragedy I am, on one level, treating this event as a means to my end of getting the story. But on another level, I am not exploiting the situation if I treat the persons in question with respect and attempt to minimize harm.

If I report on the death of a child in an accident, Kant’s principle requires that my approach to the family should be compassionate. I request a family comment or interview but I back off if they firmly express a desire to be left alone. If I obtain an interview, I follow well-known guidelines for dealing with traumatized people, such as the guidelines from the Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma.  

For suicides, the initial reports should stay close to the known facts. Reporters should avoid speculating about reasons for the suicide and avoid fantasizing about what may have been in the mind of the person at the time. Journalists should investigate whether there are economic, social, or other factors that prompted the suicide, for example, the bullying of a homosexual student at school.

To avoid copycat behavior, reporters should avoid sensationalizing a suicide. They should avoid treating suicide as an unexplainable, personal decision that lacks causes and cannot be prevented. The reports should tell people where they can find help. Journalists should bring the community together to openly face a suicide problem. Journalists can avoid exploiting suicides if they follow basic guidelines, such as those provided by The Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention.

Note that the principle behind such coverage is not “do no harm.” The principle is “minimize harm.” Minimizing harm is the proper principle since journalists do some harm to someone with almost every story. A negative book review harms the book sales for the author; reporting that Mary appeared in court harms Mary’s reputation. Such harms are justified because they are part of journalism’s social role to inform the public and comment freely.

The issue of exploitation is not whether journalists benefit from getting a good story by covering death or destruction. The issue is how journalists approach and actually report on these difficult situations.

Are journalists necessarily exploiters? No. They do not need to be. Malcolm was wrong.

Ethical journalists still “get the story” but they do so in responsible ways that avoid callous harassment and crude exploitation.

Unethical journalists can be exploiters. But the same can be said of every other profession.

Stephen J. A. Ward is the James E. Burgess Professor of Journalism Ethics in the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an adjunct professor at the University of British Columbia (UBC). He is the founding chair of the Canadian Association of Journalists’ (CAJ) ethics advisory committee and former director of UBC’s Graduate School of Journalism.