Shed light on the epidemic of suicides

By Jim Pumarlo

High-profile deaths always grab headlines. Suicides especially draw attention as witnessed by the deaths of renowned fashion designer Kate Spade and chef Anthony Bourdain. The news was carried in big and small newspapers alike.

Yet when suicide strikes in our own communities, many newspapers ignore the news. It’s time that all newsrooms have a thoughtful conversation on how to report suicide in a sensitive and forthright manner.

Even newspapers that reject the idea of reporting suicides accept that some circumstances demand an exception. Many newspapers adopt a policy to report suicides only if they involve public officials or if they occur in public settings. The rising incidence of suicides, unfortunately, demands a broader approach. Suicide is in no uncertain terms an epidemic.

A recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that suicide rates have increased in all but one state during the past two decades, with half of the states showing increases of more than 30 percent. Nearly 45,000 Americans age 10 or older died by suicide in 2016 – more than twice the number of homicides – making it the 10th-leading cause of death and one of three that is increasing. Among people ages 15 to 34, suicide was the second-leading cause of death in 2016. The rise in suicides in the United States crosses lines of age, gender, race and ethnicity.

There is no single approach, no right or wrong way to report suicides. Here are some things to consider when establishing guidelines:

  • When do suicides warrant front-page coverage?
  • How much detail should be included? Should the cause of death be identified?
  • Should suicide ever be reported as the cause of death in an obituary vs. in a separate story?
  • What steps can be taken to ensure timely reporting?
  • Should certain words or phrases be avoided in the reports?
  • Should suicide reports be accompanied with hotlines where others can turn for help?

As with the development of any news policy, it’s important to broaden the conversation beyond the newsroom. Identify and talk with those individuals who may have valuable perspectives. Health-care professionals should be near the top of your list. Talk as well with school counselors, mental health advocates, clergy, law enforcement personnel and medical response teams. Ask to speak at meetings of grief-support groups.

Many communities have formal grief-response teams that go into schools when a classmate has died. Connect with them, too. And don’t forget that your co-workers may be among the best resources. They and their families are community members, too.

Newsrooms often become preoccupied with reporting a news event, then fall short on attention to follow-up stories. Suicides can present an excellent opportunity for stories that address the causes of suicide, namely depression.

These can be worthwhile and educational stories. But newspapers must consider the impact on victims’ families and friends. No matter how the stories are pursued and presented, personal tragedy is the springboard for the coverage. Follow-up stories, no matter how well intentioned, will put a family back in the spotlight.

Responsive and responsible newspapers can do a great deal to help communities work through tragedies, but coverage must be done with sensitivity. Don’t automatically reject the idea of approaching families of the deceased. During my tenure at Red Wing, we connected with one family whose son took his life four years after losing his brother in a car accident, never recovering from his loss. It resulted in a front-page story and a remarkable series of events that resulted in the insertion of curriculum in eighth-grade health class addressing depression and the signs of suicide.

The sensitivity of suicide almost makes the subject taboo in general conversation, and it brings a feeling of guilt or embarrassment to mention in an obituary. That is unfortunate, because suicide truly is an epidemic as the statistics underscore.

A first step to addressing suicide is to acknowledge and talk about suicide in our communities. Newspapers are in the perfect positon to start and guide that conversation.

Suicides are the kind of news that should be reported if community newspapers truly are to be the recorder of local events: a living history of our hometowns. They are necessary if community newspapers are to remain relevant and represent themselves as the source of local information.

Jim Pumarlo writes, speaks and provides training on community newsroom success strategies. He is author of “Journalism Primer: A Guide to Community News Coverage,” “Votes and Quotes: A Guide to Outstanding Election Coverage” and “Bad News and Good Judgment: A Guide to Reporting on Sensitive Issues in Small-Town Newspapers.” He can be reached at pumarlo.com and welcomes comments and questions.