Why the media doesn’t cover suicide (and why it should)

I contemplated killing myself five years ago. Now, to help others, I call on all journalists to break the silence on our final taboo. This week, we feature Liam Casey‘s story from The Ryerson Review of Journalism.

My heart thumps as I scramble out of bed and grab the phone. Anita Murray, my assignment editor at the Ottawa Citizen, tells me the police have pulled a body from the Rideau Canal. The third day of my internship had been reserved for training until police discovered the “floater” around dawn. I find nothing at the scene, but a photographer has already come and gone, so a brief item appears online with a photo of the body bag.

The newsroom buzzes when I arrive, or maybe that’s just my heart, fluttering away. Murray tells me to follow up with police. About an hour later, the cops say he was a “jumper,” but that’s just for my information since, the officer tells me, the paper doesn’t report suicides. I hang up, stroll over to Murray and Rob Bostelaar, another editor, and tell them the man killed himself. They tell me not to pursue it further. I move on to a story about a man trying to lure a child into his van near a public school. At least it means I can avoid writing about suicide.

But I am confused, ignorant of the accepted practice of not reporting suicides. Later, I learn the 19-year-old man hadn’t intentionally killed himself; he was coming home from a high school graduation party and stumbled off the bridge—police say alcohol may have been involved. That’s a story that also never got told. The spectre of the s-word scared the newsroom from digging any further.

I, too, am scared of covering suicide, though for a different reason. Still, reporters have a duty to cover all aspects of life, including death. Suicide avoidance is a throwback to journalism’s dark days, a time when editors and news producers could choose to ignore unpleasant matters. But the industry can no longer justify failing to cover a tragedy that will affect so many people, in one way or another, at some time in their lives. Read the rest.