Expert tips for how to report on suicide

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Cindy Uken, left, answers a question about her award-winning series on the suicide epidemic in Montana. Photo by Rebecca Dell

By Rebecca Dell

DENVER — When reporting on suicide, one fear news writers have is that readers will respond by taking their own lives. How can reporters, editors and public relations personnel minimize this risk? At the annual conference of the Association of Health Care Journalists, a panel addressed why reporting suicides is important, ways to minimize harm from that reporting and what makes for successful coverage.

Panelists were Dr. Marian Betz, assistant professor of emergency medicine at the University of Colorado School of Medicine; Matt Vogl, deputy director of the University of Colorado Depression Center; and Cindy Uken, health care reporter for the Billings (Mont.) Gazette.

Why is it necessary to report on suicide? 

It’s simple, Vogl says: Reporting on suicide reduces the taboo nature of the topic. News coverage opens a conversation, as Uken found with her award-winning series on the suicide epidemic in Montana.

Suicide in the West is particularly high for reasons not fully known; it could be related to altitude, or perhaps gun availability. More males than females complete suicide attempts because they’re more likely to use guns, Betz says. Suicides account for more than 60 percent of all gun deaths in the U.S. Thus, one of the best ways to curb suicide is by making it harder for people to access harmful objects. This happens on both an individual level, such as by keeping guns locked and stored unloaded and separately from ammunition, and a population level, such as by selling medications in blister packaging to make it frustrating to pop all the pills out.

Responsible reporting, Vogl says, helps to offset negative information about suicide.

How can journalists minimize harm? 

The Centers for Disease Control and other leading health organizations produced evidence-based recommendations for reporting on suicide. Other organizations have adapted these recommendations. Vogl highlights the following tips for minimizing the risk of copycat suicides:

  • Don’t simplify the reason for the suicide. Suicide is complex. One precipitating event does not necessarily explain the suicide.
  • Don’t excessively report on suicide in the news. (In the Montana coverage talked about later in this post, the newspaper chose to report extensively because suicide was a quiet epidemic at that point.)
  • Don’t sensationalize suicide coverage.
  • Don’t report detailed descriptions of suicide methods or include photos of the location.
  • Don’t present suicide as a way to reach certain goals. For example, wording such as “the suicide allowed him to leave his pain behind” suggests that suicide was a reasonable option for that person.
  • Don’t glorify suicide. For example, schools can inadvertently glorify suicide by holding assemblies for students who died by suicide.
  • Don’t focus too much on positive characteristics of the person who died by suicide. Others who desire attention may then see suicide as a way to gain sympathy and be well-thought of.

Are there exceptions to these recommendations?

It depends. Uken, whose series for the Billings Gazette covers the nation-topping suicide rates in Montana, says she got to a point where she had to go ahead and open up the conversation, even if that meant putting suicide stories on the front page and thoughtfully ignoring some of these guidelines. Montana’s suicide rates had been high for over 30 years and had become a throwaway line rather than a news item, Uken says, at the Gazette.

When the first installment of the series, titled State of Despair, was published, readers responded. People wanted to talk. They weren’t concerned that Uken referred to the suicide problem as an epidemic, even though that goes against recommendations; that’s what the NAMI director in Montana called it, so that’s what she called it. As the stories came out, different groups such as the LGBT community came forward to ask for representation in the story. Uken was surprised by the revelation that the elderly are one of the most at-risk populations, despite the popular focus on youth suicide. She was also surprised that a wife wanted to share the suicide note of her husband after his death.

Survivors, she says, want to tell their stories. So she told them carefully, keeping guidelines in mind, talking with local experts and adjusting as needed.

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