Covering Suicide and Mental Illness is a three-day seminar for journalists sponsored by The Poynter Institute, The McCormick Specialized Reporting Institute and the Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention. Here are my thoughts on issues covered during today’s session. #suicidereporting
Today we learned some really wonderful techniques on how to cover suicide. Unfortunately, they aren’t very practical.
For example, it was suggested that we not use the word “suicide” in a headline. Really? Not only does it become impossibly difficult to write a headline about a suicide and not use the word “suicide,” in these days of SEO-driven journalism, you must put the word “suicide” in the headline or your editor will.
Headlines are no longer about the sexiest verb we can find. Headlines are about SEO and using words that Google Trend tells us will attract readers. Suicide is one of those words.
We were also given suggestions on how to speak with family members at the scene. First of all, if you go to a suicide scene and there are any family members present, the cops aren’t going to let you speak with them until they have ruled the death a suicide and not a homicide. This means you won’t have a prayer of getting an interview with a family member until the cops have finished their interviews.
I’ve been doing this for 30+ years and the chances of family members wanting to speak with you after what they have been through – the suicide itself and then an interview with the cops – are slim to none. With homicides, you can often get a family member to talk and even give you a photo of the victim. But suicide – no way.
Stigma is going to shut down family and friends. I’ve tried to get interviews years after a suicide and family still won’t talk about it. Just the act of trying to conduct an interview with a family member in the hours and days after the suicide may be so insulting and intrusive to them that you will ruin any chance you might have in the future.
It was also suggested that in cases of youth suicide, we talk to school counselors. Good idea, except school counselors aren’t allowed to divulge details about a student’s personal problems or diagnosis. If they did, students would never speak with them and parents would be threatening to sue.
Then there are the data. We were told that in some cases the decision to commit suicide is made in less than five minutes before the act. But how can we know that if the person is dead? We were also told that ambivalence exists until the moment of death. Again, how can we know that if the person is dead?
I asked and was told that information came from phone conversations just before or during a suicide. Which left me wondering, how many people kill themselves during or just after a phone call? I don’t know but I’m confused enough about these data that I wouldn’t use any of them in a story.
Being a reporter is not easy – especially when it comes to covering a suicide. I once had a woman yell at me about a story I had written about a mother who killed her two kids and then turned the gun on herself. It was the second time in four months that a mother had killed her child in our community.
We did not confirmation of the murder/suicides and until noon, which left us about 6 hours to interview neighbors, track down family and friends, search everyone’s social media accounts and what friends were posting about the shooting, conduct thorough background checks on the mother, father and kids, sift through a divorce file…and write the story.
A couple of days later I ran into a woman who knew the family and she yelled at me because I didn’t go through the mother’s bank records – as though I have subpoena power and can access anyone’s bank records at any time. I wrote a follow-up story a few days later to explain the phenomenon of filicide-suicide and to allay concerns in the community that such crimes were on the rise.
We try, people. We really do. We’re not heartless bastards looking for a scoop or a million clicks. We have feelings and we want the truth – the whole truth – just like you. In the age of Twitter, Facebook and real-time news feeds, we have to feed the news machine constantly. Our deadline is always now.
Can we do better when it comes to covering suicide? Yes, we must. But please understand that mental illnesses are among the least understood of all illnesses. Any researcher will tell you that the brain is the final frontier. Even they don’t know how or why the brain works or doesn’t work.
Couple that with the wives tales, prejudices and myths about suicide and you can see why these stories are so difficult. We’re trying. We really are.
Suicide word cloud available from Shutterstock.