“Fatal leap takes a life that excelled”
The headline covered a story about a 17-year-old track and field star who killed himself by leaping off a highway bridge. The story conveyed grief, uncertainty and the horror of motorists trying to persuade the boy not to jump.
For most news organizations, publishing accounts of suicide is usually a tricky call. But this story was about a well-known athlete, killing himself in a very public way. His death, and the manner of death, would have been tough to ignore.
I read the story recently while in Albany County, N.Y., where I used to live and work for The Altamont Enterprise, a community weekly. For more than three years, I shared the editing job with my friend Melissa Hale-Spencer, who is still the editor.
One thing we did differently than other local media was report on suicides. If we knew about them, we wrote about them, in the same way we’d cover other violent deaths. Almost all of them were public; families generally kept private suicides secret.
Our approach, for which Melissa deserves credit, was not an attempt to intrude in people’s lives. Instead, we covered the community without affixing a stigma to suicide. Our news judgment was based on the deaths of people who lived among us, whom others knew and cared about.
We tried to be tasteful in our coverage, which sometimes was as short as a few paragraphs, when that was all we knew.
Aside from news stories, whenever possible, we wrote about each person who died in our area, by suicide or otherwise, in obituaries. The Enterprise’s policy was, and still is, to call each family for an obituary, which is free, to learn more about the person who died. Funeral homes were good about telling us which families preferred not to hear from us.
Our policy on covering suicides was sometimes unpopular. Angry readers or relatives used as ammunition against us the fact that other papers and TV stations ignored most suicides. Usually, we were alone in our coverage.
I remember writing about an emergency medical technician who shot and killed himself. We didn’t know for nearly a month, until the town held a memorial service. I covered it.
David Squires was 24. By reporting on his death, we learned that he liked hiking, biking and climbing mountains. He had enlisted in the National Guard. He sneaked in extra shifts with the rescue squad.
In an editorial, Melissa wrote: “Too often, when suicide is involved, families hide in shame and friends turn away. Too often, because the death was so difficult, the life is not celebrated. Well-meaning people turn away from a family who has lost someone to suicide because they think it is too painful to deal with. Silence builds more walls.”
It might seem counterintuitive, but news organizations perpetuate that shame by dismissing all except the most visible suicide deaths.
I’ve heard concerns about “copycats” given as a blanket excuse for not covering them. But, from what I’ve read, that’s only if we, the media, sensationalize those stories.
The U.S. surgeon general’s 1999 Call to Action to Prevent Suicide encourages educating the public about suicide as a public health problem.
A set of tips posted at the Florida Suicide Prevention Coalition’s Web site includes: “Explain to the reporter that talking about suicide does not put the idea in someone’s head. Frank discussion about the issue leads to people seeking help.”
The 1999 Call to Action, citing 1996 data, says about 50 percent more people die from suicide than from homicide, which, as we know, often gets front-page coverage.
The story about the boy who jumped from the Albany, N.Y., bridge included a sidebar with truths and myths about suicide, along with numbers to call for help. The Enterprise does that with each story.
With careful, sensitive reporting, we can tell the stories of those who die by suicide and those affected by their deaths.
Don’t be afraid to challenge preconceptions, including your own.