This will come as a shock to some of you, but many journalists do have a moral compass. Occasionally, we take one out and see if anyone remembers how to use it.
These newsroom debates are passionate and I have been at the center of many. For years, I argued that omitting details of sex crimes because “some readers might be not want to read about that over their Cheerios” misrepresented the true level of brutality against women in America.
I mean, come on, the music industry turned misogyny into entertainment a long time ago. Why not throw in a little reality for balance? I am not arguing for gratuitous details. However, very often the word “rape” does not capture the true horror of many of these crimes.
The same is true for media coverage of suicide. There is an unspoken rule among editors throughout the land that covering a suicide — especially details of a suicide — is morally wrong. It unnecessarily inflicts more pain upon the loved ones left behind. They argue that suicide is not newsworthy unless a celebrity kills himself or the suicide affects the public — for instance, when tortured soul jumps off an overpass during rush hour and brings traffic to a halt.
We, the media, misrepresent the true level of mental illness — especially depression — in society when we ignore all but celebrity and gawker suicides. We saw this on display during the last week with the suicides of Michael Blosil, Marie Osmond’s 18-year-old son, and Andrew Koenig, star of Growing Pains. According to media reports, both had suffered with depression. End of story.
There are nearly twice as many suicides as homicides every year in the United States. Of these 33,000 suicides, how many did you hear about last year? Then think about how many murders the local media covered in your community last year. I am not — NOT — in favor of publishing the details of every suicide. As with rape victims, we do not need to publish the names or any identifying information about those who commit suicide. We do not need to publish gratuitous detail or romanticize these deaths. We should not use sensational headlines “Girl, 13, kills herself after failing to make the cheerleading team.” We should not play up these stories on the front page. But we could publish something like this:
A 17-year-old Podunk youth died Friday of a self-inflicted gunshot, according to police. The youth had a history of depression and had recently become despondent, according to the police report. The suicide is the xxx reported in Podunk county this year and the xx by a teen.
I am firmly against publishing how-to details of a suicide. Several years ago, the editors of the student newspaper at New York University struggled with their coverage of a spate of suicides and whether to identify the exact location of where several students had jumped to their deaths. Copycat suicides also are a serious concern as seen in Palo Alto, California, where a spate of teens have killed or attempted to kill themselves on a particular stretch of railroad track.
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has published recommendations for media covering suicide. But I have never heard these recommendations mentioned during suicide debates in the newsroom. I did not even know these recommendations existed until I started covering mental health several years ago.
I have learned over the years that writing anything about any death — by homicide, suicide, accident or natural causes — often angers someone. I do not want to add to the grief of those devastated by a suicide. But I ask myself, are we, the media, feeding the stigma of suicide and mental illness by ignoring it? Are we hiding our own disdain for mental illness with feigned, self-righteous compassion?
You tell me.