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Reporting on Suicide: We Can Do Better

Reporting on Suicide: We Can Do Better

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As the national conversation about gay teen suicide continues in the wake of Tyler Clementi's death, it's worth taking a moment to examine how the media covers suicide among people of any age and orientation – and how we can do better.

This guide from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention offers "best practices" for reporting on suicides, noting that romanticized coverage and media saturation can lead to copycat deaths. In particular, the guide notes that copycat suicides increase when:

  • The number of stories about individual suicides increases
  • A particular death is reported at length or in many stories
  • The story of an individual death by suicide is placed on the front page or at the beginning of a broadcast
  • The headlines about specific suicide deaths are dramatic (A recent example: "Boy, 10, Kills Himself Over Poor Grades")

Sound familiar? Just Google "Tyler Clementi" and you'll get 1.26 million results.

Jennifer Biddle, a former California Endowment Health Journalism Fellow who has reported on teen suicide, also offers these suggestions:

The most important lesson I learned in producing a video series about teen suicide was to put aside any assumptions I may have had about why teens would take their own lives. Each story for each video I produced was so different I quickly realized that finding definitive answers would not be possible. However, I did find a few angles to focus on that I believe can help enrich what we are learning about teen suicide. Here are a few of them:

1. Appreciate the uniqueness of each suicide. Reporting on suicide is a challenging task if only because each suicide is its own unique story. While there may be similarities in a range of different factors – the mental health, race, age, sexual orientation, or socio-economic background of each death by suicide – it's critically important to understand that a confluence of very individual events and circumstances occur that lead to a death by suicide.

2. Examine the impulsivity of teens. Experts speculate that 70 percent of people that attempt suicide suffer from a major depressive disorder and 20 percent have another mental health condition – leaving a significant number who may attempt suicide for other reasons. According to experts, teens are at a higher risk for suicide because of their emotional impulsivity in relation to external events (e.g. a romantic breakup, a fight with a parent, bad grades).

3. Tackle the debate about medicine. There are more questions than there are answers about the benefits and risks of drugs for depression in teens. For some teens, medication is the key to mental health (see my video about Gulliver), but for others, it can lead to suicidal thoughts or behavior. Mental health experts are developing new suicide prevention treatments (notably among Native American youth) that don't involve medication and instead rely on behavioral techniques to prevent suicide. The debate and these sorts of details are important and should be a part of your story.

4. Be sensitive to the people you are reporting about. To tease out the many nuances of this subject, you'll need to build trust with all the people you'll be talking to. Suicide clusters or copycats are a real phenomenon. For this reason, a number of different health and mental health advocacy organizations have published media guidelines for those reporting on suicide. Know these guidelines so you can reassure your interview subjects that you're interested in reporting the truth about suicide – not sensationalizing it.

More Reporting Resources:

Suicide Prevention Resource Center: Safe Reporting on Suicide

World Health Organization: Preventing Suicide: A Resource for Media Professionals  

Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma: Suicide Reporting Resource Page

ReportingonHealth Lessons from the Field: Reporting on Children's Mental and Physical Health

National Institute for Mental Health: Reporting On Suicide: Recommendations for the Media


Picture of Barbara Feder Ostrov

You also should check out Brian Stelter's 10/18 New York Times article on the "It Gets Better" video campaign supporting gay youths:

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I sent this link to a Boston Globe Metro Desk reporter who has been reporting - a la sensationalism  - suicide attempters complete with names and identifying information.  The Globe has allowed reader comments which have been inflammatory, demeaning and degrading.  Here's hoping that the resources you have provided here will make a difference over there.

Picture of Barbara Feder Ostrov

Thank you, Anonymous. Please keep us posted on any coverage you see as a result.

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