Suicide is one of the most difficult subjects any journalist encounters.
Coverage may lead to feelings of anger, pain and denial directed by survivors toward the media organization.
Additionally, various national studies have shown certain types of coverage might lead to what’s called contagion suicide, or attempts influenced by the media. That’s why most media organizations tread lightly when reporting on this mental health issue.
About 10 years ago, mental health experts developed a “Media Recommendations for Reporting on Suicide” guide. The guide encourages restrained coverage of suicide and reporting that treats it as a public health issue rather than as a crime, among many other recommendations.
As part of updating this guide, an agency of the Department of Health and Human Services has organized a meeting Monday of various media organizations and mental health experts in St. Petersburg, Fla. I have the privilege of attending on behalf of the Associated Press Managing Editors board of directors. Other organizations represented include the Suicide Awareness Voices of Education, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, the National Alliance on Mental Health, the Annenberg Public Policy Center, the Radio Television Digital News Association, the National Press Photographers Association and the DART Center for Journalism and Trauma.
We don’t advance the public’s understanding of suicide or any issue by ignoring it, but we certainly want to observe the Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics’ principle that encourages us to minimize harm. I look forward to learning new strategies for achieving both goals.
Have you ever experienced media coverage of a suicide close to you? What issues about media coverage would you want to raise?
(Originally published March 21, 2011.)