Has there been a shift in the way suicide is reported?

By Melanie Coulson

By Melanie Coulson

There has been a shift in how news organizations report suicide, and I think it’s a good one.

Case in point: driving to work in the pre-dawn hours when I worked in a major newsroom 13 years ago, I came across an accident scene. Immediately, I slowed (good ol’ human nature and journalistic instinct) to suss it out.

A body lay in the middle of the road, covered. Directly above it was a bridge. It was pretty clear that someone had jumped/fallen. Police were in the process of closing the road (a major commuter artery) and turned me around. Since I was the only car on the road at that time, I asked the officer what had happened.

“Looks like a jumper,” he said.

In the newsroom, I asked our City Editor if we’d be chasing the story. His answer was swift: No. It’s a suicide. We don’t cover suicides.

Flash forward, and news organizations are talking about suicides, and reporting these stories (case in point is the Daron Richardson suicide in Ottawa, and the public awareness campaign  spurred by her death).

Liam Casey wrote a very personal piece and interviewed various news editors about reporting on suicides (including ours) for the Ryerson Review of Journalism.

But not everyone is happy with how the media reports on suicide.

Yesterday, I received a ‘media guide’ from the Ottawa Suicide Prevention Coalition with guidelines for reporting suicides, “based and developed by the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention and considered best practices for reporting as well as for social media… The media has an important role to play in suicide prevention by reporting in an informed, sensitive, responsible and respectful manner.” From the one-page pamphlet:

Avoid the following:

  • Reporting about the method used
  • Printing photos of the deceased
  • Making generalizations or oversimplifying the complex causes of suicide (such as saying the victim was depressed, implying all depressed people are suicidal)
  • Romanticizing the suicide (Such as saying the victim wanted to be with his deceased girlfriend)
  • Referring to suicide as a ‘successful’ or to a suicidal attempt as a ‘failed attempt’

Follow these guidelines:

  • Inform without sensationalizing
  • Use words like ‘a rise in’ or ‘higher’ to describe an increase in suicide rate
  • Use generic pictures such as a family, a community, a school
  • Mention that most people who have thoughts of suicide do not act on them
  • Mention that most but not all people who die by suicide invite us to help
  • Use the words ‘died by suicide’ not ‘committed suicide’
  • Always include available community resources in all forms of reporting
  • Encourage help-seeking behaviour
  • Seek expert advice

In addition, the OSPC listed four different 24-hour help lines.

Before I share my thoughts on this advice, I must come clean on suicide – for this is a subject which has touched me personally. In 2005 my stepfather, the man who raised me, killed himself.

As a ‘survivor’ as I was (oddly) labelled, do I think suicides should be reported? Yes. Until that horrible time, I didn’t know how many adults committed suicide. (Sorry, I just can’t use ‘died by suicide’.) But as I told people, I realized that it’s not something that affects only teenagers. Many people came to share their experiences, and this helped.

Personally, I think reporting on suicides allows for a discussion on mental health and reduces the stigma that ‘survivors’ (again, so odd) face. When it’s shunned from news pages as too awful to report on, it remains something that people don’t talk about. Which makes the ‘how did your father die?’ question a whole lot harder to answer.

As a journalist, I think we have an obligation to be open about information and enable discussion. I don’t believe that if we report on suicides, it will lead to more copy cat suicides. I think the opposite will happen: we will start to pay attention to each other.

That said, being told how to report suicides doesn’t sit right – I admire what the OSPC is doing, and I know its aims are good, but I don’t like being told how to ‘spin’ the message.

My stepfather committed suicide. It’s a fact. There’s no need to be overly careful about it, and dance around it.

It doesn’t help anyone.

What do you think? Should news organizations report suicides?

Melanie Coulson is a senior online editor for The Ottawa Citizen and a journalism instructor at Carleton University. She has been working in online news since graduating from Carleton's journalism program herself in 1999. This post was originally published on her blog, JournoMel.com.