Federal agency issues guide to covering suicides

Pia Christensen

About Pia Christensen

Pia Christensen (@AHCJ_Pia) is the managing editor/online services for AHCJ. She manages the content and development of healthjournalism.org, coordinates AHCJ's social media efforts and edits and manages production of association guides, programs and newsletters.

Asserting that safe media reporting is one of the best ways to prevent suicide, the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration recently released recommendations for reporting on suicide.

The press release says the guidance was “developed by a group of suicide prevention experts, researchers and journalists and are based on more than 50 research studies.” It’s worth noting, however, that while the website lists a number of organizations that collaborated to develop the recommendations, none of those listed are journalism organizations. (August 2014 update: There are now some journalists and journalism organizations listed.)

Among its suggestions:

  • Avoid sensational headlines and prominent placement
  • Don’t use photos of grieving friends or family, memorials or funerals
  • Don’t describe a suicide as inexplicable
  • Don’t disclose the contents of suicide notes
  • Avoid misinformation and offer hope

For some perspective from journalists about reporting on suicide, we recommend “Reporting Suicide and Finding a Balance,” by Meg Spratt of the Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma. The Dart Center has a collection of resources on the topic.

The “Minimize Harm” section of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics doesn’t specifically address suicide but does point out the need to show compassion and sensitivity, as well as realizing gathering and reporting the news can cause harm or discomfort.

The Radio Television Digital News Association has guidelines for reporting on suicide, from the American Association of Suicidology. The guidelines include minimizing reporting specific details and avoiding reporting simplistic reasons for suicide. It cautions against making suicide appear glamorous to someone who might be considering suicide and reporting on it in a straightforward manner.

Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Phil Nesbitt wrote an article for the American Press Institute about the ethical debates surrounding the publication of people jumping from the World Trade Center as well as an incident in Pennsylvania in which a state official committed suicide at a press conference.

Nesbitt reports that editors decide whether or not to publish photos on a case-by-case basis, often depending on the circumstances:

A picture of someone leaping from a high-rise fire would not necessarily merit publication. But someone jumping or falling from the World Trade Center tower as a direct result of the greatest terrorist attack on our soil, for most editors, would.

(Thanks to Charles Bingham and Gary Schwitzer for suggesting resources.)

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