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Media coverage of suicides By Nikky Raney

Media coverage of suicides

 By Nikky Raney

Suicide is a very sensitive and serious issue, and the last thing any family or friend wants to do is talk to the media after a loved one has committed suicide.

Generally news sources have specific ethics, and for the most part suicides are not covered except in circumstances where the suicide is a part of a bigger situation entirely.

When I blogged about the "Craigslist Killer" dying in jail I made sure not to include the word "suicide" within the title - in order to not feed into the sensationalism of some news sources. I think the family is upset enough over the fact that Philip Markoff is known as the "Craigslist Killer."

The reason why that suicide was covered is that it shines a light on the way inmates are treated and watched over in jails. After being placed under watch for potentially being suicidal it doesn't seem right that he was still able to successfully end his own life.

Life behind bars can certainly effect someone's mental health. The lack of communication with the outside world as well as the lack of freedom really takes a toll. The bigger picture behind the suicide being covered was the conditions that led to the suicide.

NPR covered this subject in November 2009 with a segment called "Media Should Tread Carefully in Covering Suicide." The transcript along with audio focuses on when an adolescent commits suicide and the media reports on it - this has happened quite a few times, and it all comes down to ethics. It's how a journalist chooses to go about covering the story - what angle to take. Sometimes the journalist is not given the option to not cover a suicide, because the editor may assign the story and all the reporter can do is figure out a way to cover the story by the deadline.

The NPR piece includes an interview with psychiatric epidemiologist Madelyn Gould at Columbia University in New York City where she says:

"We know from studies that have looked at the impact of the media that there is something called the 'dose-response association.' So the size of the increase in suicides following a suicide story is proportional to the amount, and the duration, and the prominence of the coverage."

The piece continues:

"There are ways that the media can cover a suicide that can actually help mitigate the risk of additional suicides, says psychiatrist Paula Clayton, medical director of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, who regularly advises the media on how to report on a suicide. For example, they should report on the many complex factors that may have led up to the suicide and emphasize that 90 percent of people who kill themselves have mental health problems."

Journalism Ethics' Stephen J. A. Ward did a piece on whether journalists exploit tragedies such as suicides. 

Ward does an amazing job at explaining what attracts journalists to covering these types of stories, and why journalists feel like it is a responsibility to cover these events. He writes:
"Take the case of suicides. To be blunt, suicides are frequently newsworthy – a public official in trouble commits suicide, a distraught military hero takes his life. But these cases are frequently more than newsworthy. They challenge journalists to explore the economic and social factors that may help to induce suicidal behavior. When we witness a string of suicides at a school or in an aboriginal community, suicide is no longer personal but social. It is the responsibility of journalists to explore the reasons for these disturbing patterns in the fabric of society. "

That really does sum it up quite nicely.  The problem arises when journalists forget about the sensitivity and emotion surrounding the matter and decide to take the sensational route that becomes more of an exploitation.

Some may wonder what counts as exploitation, Ward tells:

"What counts as exploitation? To exploit is to unfairly use people in a less powerful position to achieve your own ends — without a thought to their needs and interests. As Kant famously said, the basic principle of all ethics is: Do not treat other people only as a means to your ends….In journalism, Kant's principle works like this: In reporting on a person's tragedy I am, on one level, treating this event as a means to my end of getting the story. But on another level, I am not exploiting the situation if I treat the persons in question with respect and attempt to minimize harm. "

He continues:

"Ethical journalists still "get the story" but they do so in responsible ways that avoid callous harassment and crude exploitation."

The piece Ward writes is exactly what I believe, and it is good to know that there are journalists out there who share my belief on the ethics of journalism 

Yes, there are many ways to cover a suicide and have the most read or watched coverage - but what is more important is to cover the suicide with respect and sensitivity and get the story without causing more pain to those affected.

"Ethics is knowing the difference between what you have a right to do and what is right to do." - Potter Stewart

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