Ethics of covering suicides

As the world comes to terms with the suicide of comedian and actor Robin Williams eyes will, and should be, fixed firmly on the manner in which the media handles coverage of his death.

Coincidently, at the July meeting of SPJ’s Ethics Committee, during which time we put the final touches on the third and final draft of the ethics code revisions, we added language about covering suicides. Near the bottom of the section on Minimize Harm you will find these words: “Be cautious about reporting suicides that do not involve a public person or a public place.”

This represents the first time the Code has referenced suicide coverage. The discussion around the table was brisk and thoughtful when longtime committee member Fred Brown suggested language. But, even Brown acknowledged that many news outlets have an “understanding of how to handle such reporting” and maybe it wasn’t completely necessary to offer it here. It was decided there should be a “gentle reminder” that caution is needed.

But, the cautionary language gets its backbone more from legal thinking than moral reasoning. Nearly every journalist, even the ones who slept through media law in college, knows that public figures and officials are held to different standards of privacy. Legally, their information, especially that contained in official documents like police and autopsy reports, are open to the public. When you become a celebrity you forfeit much of your rights to privacy, even in death.

So, what this means and what SPJ’s new code revision is trying to say is this: If it’s John Smith who lives down the street and works on your car at the mall, then coverage of his suicide may not warrant any reporting by the local media. In the event it does, please exercise caution, though we don’t really qualify what that means.

I think it means you should have a thoughtful conversation in the newsroom about whether a private person hanging himself in his bedroom is elevated to importance for reporting. Weigh the harm in reporting over the need or the right to report it. In the case of Williams, not being a legally defined private person, his suicide is deserving of media attention. But how much?

Does it then mean everything is fair game with Williams and others who have less privacy? This isn’t a legal argument any more. We’ve established the legal standing on privacy. The question becomes a moral one. Ethically speaking, where do we draw the line on what should be reported? What about poor taste, pandering to morbid curiosity, reporting because we can instead of if we should?

If it helps you to better understand this, I suggest you take out the legal guidelines and think about Williams being a person first and a celebrity second.

I suspect the media will push those limits in the case of Williams. For instance, is it necessary to report the contents of any notes he left behind? If they were written exclusively for his family, does the public deserve to know what they said? Why? When does useful knowledge break down into petty details for sensationalism?

I have no doubt there are media outlets right now prepared to venture beyond the boundaries of good taste, all the while citing their legal rights, void and ignorant to the equally important and often more valued moral duties.

It also makes me wonder if SPJ’s insertion about suicides has gone far enough. Since we added the line and started the conversation, might it be in our interest to be a little more forceful in reminding journalists that ethical journalism is as much about deciding what not to report as it is reporting all the truth and that caution in reporting suicides is deserved by all people?

I think so.







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  • Anonymous

    I wish more people were bringing this issue up. I thought that Robin Williams press conference went WAY too far, and the sheriff seemed to be revealing all those details with a certain glee. Our “need to know” every detail seems to veer into morbid curiosity if not sheer nosiness, and these few days is probably just the start.

    None of it changes the fact Williams died.

  • AndySchotz

    Not sure if this link will be readable, but I wrote a Quill column about suicide coverage that has a different approach. Not that reporting on suicide shouldn’t be sensitive, but we shouldn’t automatically start with an assumption that it’s taboo, even when private citizens are involved.

    Doesn’t an accidental death in a home have an assumption of privacy, too? Why not tell journalists to tread lightly in those cases, too?

    The taboo is based on an outdated societal belief that there is, and should be, shame attached to suicide and it shouldn’t be discussed. Actually, it’s a serious mental health issue in this country and should be discussed often – tastefully.

    The question about reporting on specific details of Robin Williams’ death is another matter. The New York City tabloids and their ilk are always going to run roughshod on ethics; they thrive on pandering to lurid curiosity.

    The addition to the code has the opposite effect, inadvertently affirming the tabloids’ decisions. It makes it sound as if all bets are off when reporting on the death of a public person or public place. I would strike it.

  • Ryan Horns

    After 16 years in journalism, I’ve dealt with the suicide coverage many many times and it never gets easier. It’s a bit lengthy, but here is a column I wrote about it recently:

    “Sense and sensitivity”
    by Ryan Horns

    In the course of almost 20 years spent as a journalist, I can definitely say I have helped a lot of businesses and organizations make a lot of money. I’ve also helped highlight a lot of amazing people, heroes and idealists.
    Similarly, I’ve probably ticked off a bunch of people at times as well. Maybe I put your drunk driving charge in the police beat and you lost your job. Maybe I didn’t write about your granddaughter. Maybe I wrote about someone else’s granddaughter. Maybe I questioned a decision you made or covered your court case. Maybe I spelled your name wrong once and you’ve cursed my name ever since.
    I’m comfortable with this because I know I’m just the messenger. People sometimes make bad decisions. Those decisions put them in the newspaper, not me.
    Over the past month, however, I’ve learned without a doubt that writing about suicides is the single most sensitive topic a journalist can cover. This has bothered me.
    After being told off by a girl in the Journal-Tribune offices last week, the fact truly hit home.
    When investigators determined January’s house fire arson was a suicide attempt, I reported the story. That prompted the girl’s visit to the newspaper office: How I could write what I did? Why couldn’t I bury the story on page two? Why did it have to be on the front page? Why do I care more about selling newspapers than the feelings of the family? Why couldn’t I hold the story for an extended period of time so the family could properly mourn?
    Of course, I also admired the guts it took for her to stomp down to my office and confront a guy more than twice her age. She meant business.
    The only stammering answer we could give in the newsroom was that we are journalists. Good or bad, we “journal” what happens in the community every single day. When a house burns and countless firefighters and emergency responders go inside and put their own lives in danger to save someone, it becomes news. Whether I like writing about it or not doesn’t matter.
    Some media outlets pride themselves on only reporting good news. I understand the desire, but I don’t see how that is a service to the community. Newspapers must deal with reality and facts. This past month I’ve written about fatal car crashes, ice storms, groundbreaking ceremonies, a canine service dog helping a handicapped boy, veterans being honored, snow rolls and thieves. This is our story as Union County, the good and the bad.
    We are all merely humans; just as capable of being heroic as we are admitting defeat. The role of journalism is not to help a community avoid dealing with reality. It is about helping them learn to understand it.
    Then, I started noticing how many suicide attempts there were over the past two weeks. Almost two-dozen Union County people tried to take their own lives in the first half of February alone. Why isn’t anyone talking about that?
    Meanwhile, I was trying to write an article about Marysville resident Amanda Stidam as she trains for her annual Suicide Sucks marathon run to raise funds for suicide awareness. Stidam lost her own mother to suicide, and feels the more people talk about the reality of suicide, the greater chance society has to get people the help they need and save more lives.
    In full disclosure, during the early 1990s, I lost a family friend to suicide and wondered what I could have done to prevent it. After years spent getting to know such an interesting person, all I have left is a Bob Dylan record he gave me once.
    The irony of the situation is that while I was getting yelled at for bringing attention to a suicide; local agencies were simultaneously asking me to write about suicide awareness. It seemed clear that a gray area needed addressed.
    During last week’s Local Outreach to Suicide Survivors (LOSS) meeting, I decided to find out. In a room full of people affected by suicide at one point in their lives, I asked how a journalist could realistically write about it without offending anyone. One member asked what news purpose there is to writing about a suicide. Another suggested I treat the story as if I were writing about my own mother.
    I pointed out that I don’t typically write about suicide attempts, and rarely print the names of the victims – unless they burn down a house, or shoot guns, or drive their cars into ponds, or generally involve the entire community. Some people kill themselves to get attention; others quietly want a way out.
    Honestly, I wish I wrote more often about suicide victims. Maybe I should do feature stories about every single one, what led them to take their own lives and then ask their family and friends to comment.
    When it comes down to it, it’s not my job to uphold this myth that suicide doesn’t exist. Especially not when 20 people have tried to kill themselves over the past month in our community. These are our friends and neighbors. We can pull the wool over our eyes and pretend these deaths aren’t happening, or we can raise awareness, provide the help and make sure it doesn’t happen again.

    -Ryan Horns is a reporter for the Journal-Tribune

  • AndySchotz

    Good column. Very thoughtful.

  • Aimee England

    I am being asked by family members of a suicide ( cause of death not made public nor released by police) to remove photographs of the scene as police investigated the fatality, which was called in as DOA on our local college campus. Police allowed me to photograph the scene from the roadway. Family members are demanding (by phone calls and comments in the story post) that the photos showing the vehicle ( on one was in it ) be removed. I have removed the photos that featured the vehicle more prominently, due the lighting and distance no private information could be revealed. Here’s the link to my news page. These have been shared on Social media ( the post shows 135 shares and shows 8472 people reached.) several times. This link is the one with truck photos removed.

    And the photo below is one of the vehicle and similar to others that were removed.

    Here some of the comments. :

    Janelle Lynn Brooks Why are these up here! People need to respect privacy

    Like · Reply · 1 hr

    Heather Bryan Take these pictures down now!

    Jessica ThomasAugust 27 at 9:14pm Have you people no shame. Yes, you may be proud of your police and such but, this woman has a family. She’s my mother! No respect for victims privacy…

    Freedom of speech!! Yankeys like all you of you, that is posting this. Your the main reason I moved south. Did ANY of you think of her family, or friends? How would you like to deal with someone you love taking their life. Then dealing with pictures on facebook? If the police would of been doing their job they would of found her way before this. Yes I know that you won’t posted this, but I know this family. They are all good people and to put them though this, is uncalled for. Did any of news paper people ask how long that she had been missing? That’s what I thought, just put a label on her and belittle her. She won’t know the difference because she is just one more number to all of you. That really stinks because she has a mom, husband, 3 kids, brother, sister, and grandkids. They have to put up with the B.S. that you print. I’m sorry but all of you are in the wrong!!!! If the family could find a lawyer that is as crooked as all of you, I hope they sue all of you for wrong doing.

    Mainly I am worried that they could report me to the social media host site (Facebook) for offending photos.
    Secondly, I can’t afford nor do I have the resources to be sued (were that even an option) My news page is community based and is free- done in free time for the love the community. I’d like to work on monetizing it)
    This last commenter is correct. I and agree with some of his points. She was missing for about two days, and I am not sure that certain police did thoroughly look for her from what I heard on the scanner. ( my interpretation could be wrong however). I feel that I reported the facts correctly. Other news sites posted “BODY FOUND”. with just graphics.
    Locally I am the only 24-7 news resource.


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