Tips for covering suicide
By Katti Gray
As suicidal ideation, attempted suicides and actual suicides have increased in recent years, so has coverage of those topics and the discussion of how a journalist might best approach suicide in their reporting.
Using the right words is crucial, according to, among others, Kaiser Health News correspondent Aneri Pattani, a part-time public health grad student at Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School. Being careful not to treat suicide as a criminal act is the place to start, said Pattani, co-author of this free online course on covering suicide responsibly.
Though “committed suicide” still finds its way into the 24/7 news cycle, “died by suicide” is considered the accurate term by a range of organizations, including the Rosalynn Carter Fellowships in Mental Health Journalism program, which published this guide for reporters, and the Columbia University Dart Center for Trauma guide.
These are among the tips in those guides:
Do not sensationalize suicides with phrases like “heaven has a new angel.”
Do not worsen existing stigma by, for example, “othering” those who die by suicide by noting that they were bullied, a regional, religious or racial minority, and so forth.
Do not focus on the method of suicide or characterize it as a choice.
Question whether your reporting harms those who knew and/or were close to the person who died by suicide.
Ask whether the coverage includes sources that provide helpful resources for those affected by suicide.
Make data central to the coverage. For example, 90% of people who survive a suicide attempt do not die by suicide later on.
Determining whether to report methods or locations of suicide are tough decisions for journalists — who are taught to dig into the details — to make. Pattani said she also grapples with that. “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," she explained. "[But] we enter this profession because we think we can shine a light on issues, raise voices ... What comes with that is not doing harm.”
Minimizing harm requires reporting in a way that does not feed suicide contagion, a cluster of suicides triggered by an initial suicide. Several studies over the past few decades have explored those clusters, which are more common among teens and younger adults than older adults.
Here are some other essential data that Pattani offers for well-framing and contextualizing suicide stories:
In 2020, suicide was the second leading cause of death for those ages 10-14 and 25-34, according to the CDC. Suicide was among the top nine causes of death for 10- through 64-year-olds.
Also in 2020, according to the CDC, roughly 46,000 people died by suicide in the United States (compared to 47,500 in 2019 and more than 41,000 in 2013). In 2020, about 12.2 million adults reported thinking about suicide; 3.2 million planned a suicide attempt; 1.2 million attempted suicides.
Check out this 1974 study in the American Sociological Review, this 2014 study in The Lance, this 2018 study in the British Journal of Psychiatry, and these additional studies at reportingonsuicide.org.
The interactive Pattani/Bloomberg free online course includes a practice interview with a mom who lost her child to suicide; and a sample of a reporting explaining suicide reporting guidelines to a skeptical editor.