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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