Should suicide be reported?

The Globe and Mail’s Andre Picard reports on the recent suicide of a 19-year-old law student who jumped from a high rise residence at the University of Ottawa, and asks: “Is that news? If so, how detailed should the news reports be? Will drawing attention to the tragedy be helpful or harmful?”

Whether to report a suicide is a dilemma every journalist will face, some time — not least because our usual assumptions about the benefits, rights and freedoms of information are challenged by numerous suicide experts with a barrage of advice. Canadian Psychiatric Association guidelines (pdf) for media state that
“media coverage of suicide is proven to lead to copycat suicides.” The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention warns media, “Suicide Contagion is Real.” The Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention has a publication for media with specific recommendations  “to discourage imitative or copycat suicides.”

Noting there were 3,743 Canadian suicides in the last year for which stats are available, Picard asks: “Should we be turning a blind eye to this carnage so as to not offend sensibilities? Or should we be shining a light on suicide deaths – most of them preventable – to highlight the underlying cause, which is often untreated mental illness?”

Picard’s answer: “The seemingly compassionate rules are a convenient excuse for avoiding discussion of (and reporting on) an issue that makes us highly uncomfortable.”

My  answer: there’s no one-size-fits-all solution on reporting suicide. Judgement is needed in every instance — and because there is rarely time for education and reflection on a news story, researching and thinking about the issue in advance is needed.