Journalist explains the right and wrong way to cover suicide

Aneri Pattani

When covering suicide, words, and framing matter, a lesson Raleigh, N.C.-based Kaiser Health News reporter Aneri Pattani learned firsthand when suicide researchers blasted her about how she had written a suicide story. 


“I got called out on the wording: ‘committed suicide’ versus ‘died by suicide,’” said Pattani, a Northeastern University journalism graduate whose Hopkins’ Master of Public Health Studies focuses on children and adolescents.

 “The framing of it,” Pattani added, “as just another crime article was a problem. What I’ve tried to do increasingly is to approach it as a public health issue, reporting on the individual but stepping back and diving more into the context. Talking about how many deaths there are nationally, but also how many people attempt suicide and survive. What warning signs can the public look for? And what treatment options exist?”


To help sharpen her skills and learn how to avoid these types of mistakes, she enrolled part-time at Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health last year. (Check out AHCJ’s new tip sheet for more insight into covering suicide.)


Pattani also created the course, “Responsible Reporting on Suicide for Journalists,” with Bloomberg and Johns Hopkins Medical School Professor Holly Wilcox; she teaches the free online class with Wilcox and Bloomberg Professor Emeritus William Eaton


Here’s an abridged version of her conversion with AHCJ about the free suicide course for journalists. (This discussion has been edited for clarity and brevity.)


What’s the broad goal of this course?


These are guidelines that apply to the day-to-day reporting of suicide. How to choose the right b-roll, the right music (if you’re using music), and how to advocate with your editor about why certain language is critical.


Share how you’ve approached a particular suicide story.


The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, had three students die by suicide, two of them in the same weekend. It was a tough time, with a lot of coverage of the suicides — some of it responsibly done, some of it concerning. I wrote about postvention and what campuses can do. What does the research say you should do after one death to help stop contagion suicide?


Would you explain what postvention is? 


There are these ideas of prevention, intervention and postvention. What can we do to protect the people close to that death who might be most vulnerable? 


This [postvention] also means that news coverage has to be clear about the cause of death. Was it a confirmed suicide? Avoid speculation. 


The reporting should let people know about individual or group counseling. It should be careful to frame memorials and vigils in a way that honors the person but doesn’t glorify suicide. Researchers say you don’t want to make it so that people who may be vulnerable think, “I want someone to hold this [vigil] or me.”


There’s a fine line between respectful, accurate language and euphemism that potentially erodes journalism.


Best practices are to report suicides as suicides. But, regarding language, it’s not that euphemistic to say a person died of suicide. It’s no different than saying someone died of cancer, of COVID or of pneumonia.


But this goes beyond that: Are you covering fully? For example, ‘This one person died. This is the number of suicides in the county. Here’s what steps are being taken.’ That is a different framing.


Some journalists include the method of suicide, but that can stir people to use that same method.


Are there no instances when the details of the method are crucial to the story?


I grapple with that. We are supposed to report details, to provide the public with more details, not less. These are guidelines, not hard and fast rules. This isn’t to say your story is bad if you include certain details, or that you’re going to cause contagion. 


We enter this profession because we think we can shine a light on issues and raise voices … What comes with that is not doing harm. 


For more tips on how to cover suicide, check out this new tip sheet.

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