Suicide coverage a dilemma for media
By Bradley Wilson, MJE
Jack Kennedy, MJE, a former JEA president and now Colorado Student Media Association executive director can be profound with the simplest of statements. The day the winter issue of C:JET hit his box was no exception.
“I just finished reading the Winter C:JET and wanted to thank you. Sometimes content just happens to fit perfectly with needs, and the wildly different focus topics of suicide coverage and typography are very timely for Colorado advisers.”
“Suicide is a national health emergency and Colorado’s suicide rate for young people is double the national average. I field emails and calls multiple times each month about best practices. My answers pale in comparison to this package.”
As I wrote in the introduction to the package, “The increase in the suicide rate has been making the news. The debate continues on how — or if — media outlets should be covering suicides at all depending on who is involved and how the death occurred. Ongoing research shows the imitative effects of media coverage of suicide to be minimal and usually under special circumstances. To minimize imitative effects, how media outlets cover suicide and how much can make a big difference.”
So, he asked if it were possible to make the package available more widely.
While we were considering how to deal with Jack’s request, Katie Frazier, CJE, adviser at Mayde Creek High School (Houston, Texas) wrote on the JEAHELP email distribution list, “Over the weekend, we lost two students who were sisters (14 and 16) in an apparent murder-suicide; the girls’ stepfather allegedly killed the two girls and then himself while the mother was not home.”
As I wrote in the winter issue, “The increase in the suicide rate has been making the news. The debate continues on how — or if — media outlets should be covering suicides at all depending on who is involved and how the death occurred. Ongoing research shows the imitative effects of media coverage of suicide to be minimal and usually under special circumstances. To minimize imitative effects, how media outlets cover suicide and how much can make a big difference.”
So, to all 3,000 members of JEA and others, here is an excerpt from the winter 2018 issue including 13 tips for media coverage of suicides, a model for Suicide Awareness Week, thoughts from advisers all over the country, case studies, sample policies, and academic research with guidance.
- Maintain objectivity. Do not use big, sensationalistic headlines. Phrase headlines to refer to the death, not the manner of the death.
- Maintain objectivity. Do not place the story at the top of page one or at the top of the website for an extended period of time.
- Maintain objectivity. Do not devote too much space to the coverage of the event. Instead, devote space to the mental health issues.
- Be sensitive to the family and to the community. Be careful about how and when you release timely information on social media.
- Discuss warning signs, perhaps as a sidebar. Do not say the death was “without warning.”
- Include up-to-date information on the investigation to present information such as whether a note was found, without quoting the note.
- Realize that investigations take time. Do not refer to the cause of death without an official statement. The rest is speculation. When discussing the speculation, include comments from suicide prevention experts and mental health experts.
- Use a traditional school photo or a photo provided by the family. Avoid pictures of the scene or grieving friends.
- Describe the deceased as “having died by suicide” rather than as “a suicide” or having “committed suicide.”
- Contrast “suicide deaths” with “non-fatal attempts.” Do not use “successful” suicide or “unsuccessful attempt.” Attempted suicide may technically be a crime. It is best reported as a public health issue.
- Work with mental health officials, including school counselors, to discuss the bigger issues of mental health that help present the suicide in context.
- Do background research. Use data from the Centers for Disease Control and the state’s health department to discuss trends in suicide.
- Include suggestions about what to do or whom to consult if students or their friends are considering suicide with all coverage, including information on where students can go for assistance, including the National Suicide Hotline number and local crisis phone numbers.
Suicide Awareness Week from Kirkwood High School
Mitch Eden’s speech as Dow Jones News Fund Teacher of the Year
Media Coverage as a Risk Factor in Suicide. Stack, S. April 2003. Journal of Epidemial Community Health. 57. 238-240.
Media Contagion and Suicide Among the Young. Gould, M., et. al. May 2003. American Behavioral Scientist. 46(9). 1269-1284.
Suicide in the Media: A Quantitative Review of Studies Based on Nonfictional Stories. Stack, S. April 2005. The American Association of Suicidology. 35(2). 121-133.
The Impact of the Media Coverage of the Suicide of a Well-Known Quebec Report: The Case of Gaëtan Girourad. Tousignant, T., et. al. 2005. Social Science and Medicine. 60. 1919-1926.
Position Statement and Guideline on Media Coverage of Suicide. Ramadas, S. et. al. April 2014. Indian Journal of Psychiatry. 56(2). 107-110.
Trends In News Media Coverage Of Mental Illness In The United States: 1995–2014. McGinty, E. et. al. 2016. Health Affairs. 35(6). 1121–1129.
The winter 2018 issue of JEA’s flagship publication Communication: Journalism Education Today features a 17-package on how scholastic media can accurately, fairly and in a timely fashion cover a suicide at their school. The package features decades worth of research and, finally, 13 specific tips for such difficult coverage.
After two stories based on sessions at the JEA Advisers Institute, one by Erin Burden and one by Jenann Elias there are also two technology stories, one on TimelineJS by Nicole Smith and one on Steller by Jacqueline Rogers.
The cover photo is by Claire Schaffer of Westlake High School (Austin, Texas), Deanne Brown, adviser.
The second major package in the magazine is an in-depth package on making font choices by Bernadette Cranmer, MJE.
Not only does the package of stories include various sample of sophisticated typography from various high school publications, it includes a list of books for type nerds with commentary by Cranmer and a vocabulary list.
It also includes an exercise on typography on page 36. Here are the answers.
- The correct answers are 1. D; 2. M; 3. J; 4. L; 5. T; 6. K; 7. G; 8. E; 9. I; 10. S; 11. H; 12. Q; 13. P; 14. B; 15. C; 16. N; 17. A; 18. F; 19. R; 20. O
- This question has a variety of answers depending on the fonts installed on your system.
- There are 12 points in a pica. There are 6 picas in an inch. There are 72 points in an inch.
- When a printer says set the copy “10 on 12,” it means to set the copy in 10 point font with a 12 point leading or 2 points of blank space between each line.
- A serif font is considered the easiest to read in body copy sizes because the serifs help join the individual letters into words allowing the mind to “chunk” the pieces together so they can be read faster.
The fall 2017 issue of JEA’s flagship publication, Communication: Journalism Education Today features an in-depth movie guide for Steven Spielberg’s 2017 release “The Post.”
For the film, select discussion scenes, important results and journalism challenges.
Plan appropriate questions after showing a short segment — five to 10 minutes. Consider using repeat segments later in the semester.
The information about the actors and the historical background provides helpful details about the stature of “The Post” as a major journalism film. Advisers should recognize the many details that director Steven Spielberg considered as he worked carefully to establish credibility for a film about the history of freedom of the press. Being familiar with the background and the trivia details equips advisers to enhance the value of the film for their journalism students.
“While the temptation may be to think only of showing a film as a few easy class days, that approach limits student learning and smothers teacher vitality.” Howard Spanogle, author, “Directors of the Screen” in spring 2007 issue
The Post Crossword
On page 11, students can crossword puzzle while doing background research and reading articles contained in this issue, complete the crossword puzzle. Here’s the answer key to the puzzle.
Events in The Post
On pages 12-13, students can complete a chronological movie guide while watching the movie, ideally after having completed other exercises and having reviewed other material with the instructor. Here are the answers to the open-ended questions.
- State Department military analyst Daniel Ellsberg accompanies Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara to Vietnam. Ellsberg tells the secretary that there has not been improvement over the last year. “What I’m most impressed by is how much things are the same.” Yet what does the secretary tell reporters? “Military progress over the past 12 months has exceeded our expectations. In every respect we’re making progress.”
- What think tank did Daniel Ellsberg work for when borrowing the documents, the sensitive Report of the Office of the Secretary of Defense Vietnam Task Force? The Rand Corporation
- The discussion about what to do in Vietnam took place across five presidential administrations. Which five? Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon
- Katherine Graham was planning to take her company public, selling shares in the company to raise capital. What did Graham want to use the money to invest in, something she said Gannett, Knight and Ridder did not do? Reporters, really good reporters; “Our readers are leaders. They’re educated. They demand more. Quality and profitability do go hand in hand.”
- Why was Judith Martin denied the opportunity to cover Tricia Nixon’s wedding? She burned her bridges when she crashed the reception of Nixon’s older daughter Julie. She compared Tricia Nixon to a vanilla ice cream cone.
- After eating dinner at Art Buchwold’s house, Kay Graham and the other wives move to the couches. What do they discuss? the style section
- Even while reading the paper, Graham acknowledges, “It’s hard to say no to the president.” What had she done with the president and his family? What did the president want? She had spent a weekend swimming and speedboating on Johnson’s ranch. In return, Johnson wanted the paper to endorse.
- How does Bradlee try to take advantage of Graham’s relationship with McNamara? He tries to use Graham to get a copy of the study from McNamara.
- As Nixon says in actual recorded tapes used in the movie, “[C]ould the Times be prosecuted? As far as the times is concerned…, they’re our enemies. I think we just oughta do it.” Prosecuted for what? Releasing classified information. Indeed, the attorney general does ask the Times to “refrain from further publication” for “irreparable injury to the national defense.”
- How many shares did the initial offering of The Washington Post Company sell and at how much? Why was this significant? 1.35 million shares at $24.50/share. Graham had been pushing for a higher price per share to fund more reporters.
- The study had 47 volumes. Covert ops. Guaranteed debt. Rigged elections. What was the motivator for copying and distributing the sensitive material? Guilt. A bigger motivator than courage.
- And 70 percent of the effort in Vietnam was for what? To avoid the humiliation of defeat. “They knew we couldn’t win … and still sent boys to die.”
- As Bradlee is recounting the night at the hospital, he remembers Jackie Kennedy saying, “None of this, none of what you see, none of what I say is ever going to be in your newspaper, Ben.” That’s when Bradlee says he never thought of President John F. Kennedy as a source. What was he and how did Bradlee feel about that? a friend; “We can’t be both; we have to choose.” “We have to check on their power; if we don’t hold them accountable, my god, who will?”
- The paper’s attorney’s say the United States government will argue that publication of the papers is a violation of what? The Espionage Act, a felony
- What did McNamara warn that Nixon could do if the papers are published? “The Richard Nixon I know will muster the full power of the presidency and if there’s a way to destroy your paper, by God, he’ll find it.” “He’ll crush you.” “He’s wanted to ruin the paper for years and you will not get a second chance.”
- Despite insistent attorneys who say, “I guess I wouldn’t publish,” Graham makes the decision to do what? “Let’s go, let’s do it. Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go. Let’s publish.”
- Bradlee goes over to Gramham’s house to talk about a bit of a “complication” and that they could be held in contempt and could go to prison. What is Graham’s reaction? “My decision stands. And I’m going to bed.”
- The morning after the Post publishes the first article, William Rhenquist from the Office of the Legal Council at the Department of Justice calls Bradlee and requests what? “[Y]ou publish no further information of this character and advise me that you have made arrangements for the return of these documents to the Department of Defense.”
- We’ve got a decision. What was it? 6-3. “We win. And so does the Times.” Quoting Justice Black, Meg Greenfield tells the newsroom, “The Founding Fathers gave the free press … the protection it must have … to fulfill its essential role in our democracy… The press was to serve the governed, not the governors. …”
- What was Nixon’s reaction according to actual tapes of him played in the movie? “I want it clearly understood that from now on, ever, no reporter from The Washington Post is ever going to be in the White House. … Never, never in the White House, no church service, nothing that Mrs. Nixon does. … [N]o reporter from The Washington Post is ever to be in the White House again. And no photographer either.
Carol Lange also published a guide to “The Post” for The Washington Post’s Newspaper in Education program. VIEW IT HERE.