Can an Interview Cause Suicide?  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns :    FIRST AMENDMENT WATCH    
From AJR,   April 1997

Can an Interview Cause Suicide?   

A Rhode Island jury will decide if a TV station is responsible for a man's death.

By Jane Kirtley
Jane Kirtley (kirtl001@tc.umn.edu) is the Silha Professor of Media Ethics and Law at the University of Minnesota's School of Journalism and Mass Communications.     


Can a telephone call from a reporter cause someone to commit suicide? Ruling that a jury must decide the question, the Rhode Island Supreme Court has reinstated a civil lawsuit claiming that it did.

In May 1993, Bruce E. Clift telephoned his wife at work, telling her "it's over'' and that he planned to kill himself. Judith A. Clift rushed home to find that her spouse, who had a history of mental illness, had turned on a gas jet and was firing guns. Confronted by his wife, Clift slashed his throat with glass from a broken window.

Police surrounded the house and cordoned it off while a hostage specialist telephoned Clift to try to persuade him not to take his life.

Meanwhile, the news media began to gather outside. At around 5 p.m. a local television reporter telephoned Clift asking him to give her an interview that would be played on the
6 p.m. newscast.

During the interview, Clift apologized to his wife, saying that he loved her, but that nevertheless he intended to commit suicide and would not surrender to authorities. A few minutes after the interview aired, Clift killed himself. The television sets in the house were turned on and tuned to the station that aired the interview at the time of his death.

Clift's widow sued the television station, arguing that its negligence and wanton misconduct had aggravated her husband's emotional distress and had caused his suicide. A state trial judge dismissed her claims.

Judith Clift appealed, and the Rhode Island Supreme Court reversed the lower court decision.

The court said that the station could be liable for the reporter's conduct, but only if the jury found that the call triggered an "uncontrollable impulse'' for Clift to kill himself. If, despite the call, Clift still had the capacity to make a rational decision, the station could not be responsible for his death.

However, the court refused to impose a stricter standard on journalists than on other people, as Judith Clift had urged. If a news organization could be found liable simply because it could have foreseen that a suicide might result from its actions, the gathering and disseminating of news would be inhibited, infringing on First Amendment rights, the Supreme Court said.

The high court also rejected Judith Clift's claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress. It concluded that the trial judge had properly decided that the station's conduct was not so outrageous as to justify liability, even assuming that it knew that obtaining and broadcasting the interview might upset Bruce Clift and his family.

The court also ruled that one telephone call from a journalist does not constitute invasion of privacy, noting that "no one can question the newsworthiness of the sad but public incident.'' While perhaps lacking in good taste, the court said, the station was within its rights when it broadcast the interview.

ýevertheless, the high court found that because a psychoanalyst hired by the plaintiff suggested that Bruce Clift's acknowledged "self-destructive impulses'' may have been exacerbated by the reporter's call, a jury will have to determine whether the interview caused Clift's mental condition, culminating in an uncontrollable impulse to commit suicide.

Just as the jury in Food Lion vs. ABC held reporters liable for trespass and fraud, and a judge in Waco, Texas, reinstated a wrongful death action against journalists accused of causing the failure of the raid by federal agents on the Branch Davidian compound, the Rhode Island Supreme Court found that "everyone, including the press, should be answerable for unprivileged negligent actions.''

Though it gives lip
service to free press considerations, the opinion is a reminder that the nation's courts are increasingly inclined to strictly apply laws to the behavior of journalists covering news, granting them no special immunity based on the First Amendment.

Many journalists would agree with the Rhode Island court's observation that those who insist the First Amendment is an impenetrable shield from civil liability do themselves and the media no service. "First Amendment rights of the press,'' the court said, "are as much endangered by its zealots as by its critics.''

No one can dispute that cases like these raise serious ethical dilemmas. But the critical and still unanswered question is whether, as a matter of law, newsgathering should be entitled to the same constitutional safeguards that apply to defamation claims.

Surely the right to publish a newsworthy story cannot be meaningfully divorced from the right to report it. As long as courts rule that the First Amendment is essentially irrelevant in cases involving questionable behavior during the newsgathering process, self-censorship will be the inevitable result. l

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