Tough Calls  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   December 2002

Tough Calls   

Deciding when a suicide is newsworthy and what details to include are among journalism’s more sensitive decisions.

By Mark J. Miller
Miller, a freelance writer in Brooklyn, has written for Details, the Washington Post and Salon.com.     

Related reading:
   » Media Tips

Shortly before 10 a.m. on August 22, a man jumped from the top of the New York Times' 15-story building in Times Square. Allen Myerson, 47, was a staffer at the paper, an assistant business and financial editor, and he landed on the roof of a parking garage next door. That's where police found him. Dead--an apparent suicide.

The next day's obits ranged from a respectful one in the Times--declaring that Myerson "fell from a parapet above the 15th floor" and that the preliminary police finding was suicide--to the New York Post's play-by-play of the moments before death and exposure of the editor's marital and financial difficulties. New York's Daily News went with something in between--some detail of what Myerson had done that day but no information on any personal problems. A number of papers ran briefs.

Journalists sent letters to Jim Romenesko's MediaNews Weblog, saying that the Times had been too reserved in its coverage or the Post had been outrageous. The debate on how to cover suicide had been reignited.

"Suicide is a deeply troubling issue that pains family and friends," wrote Roland Martin, editor of blackamericaweb.com and news editor of Savoy magazine. "But the moment it became a news story, it is incumbent upon us as journalists to tell the facts behind the story. The story in this case was the suicide. Marriage and financial issues is the context of the story. Journalists should not shy away from the context just because it involves one of our colleagues."

Times international business editor Patrick J. Lyons disagreed. "It is long past time the media got out of the 'it bleeds, it leads' business of playing to the basest gutter strain of morbid curiosity and mislabelling it 'news,' " he wrote. "All that does is debase us, and further batter our withering claim on the trust and confidence of the public."

Keith J. Kelly, the media columnist for the Post who wrote the Myerson story, says the paper didn't go overboard in its coverage. "Certainly if anyone in the public eye jumps off the very public building of their employer, that's news," he says. "And we could have said much worse things. I thought just alluding to his marital difficulties was fine. We didn't get into details." The Times declined to comment on Myerson's death and the paper's coverage.

The Times and the Post handle many stories in divergent ways, but the sensitive nature of suicides has raised tricky ethical questions for journalists. If a suicide is committed in a public place or by a public figure, is it automatically news? If a person is not well-known, does a story need to be done at all? Should the contents of a suicide note be published? How concerned should journalists be about a copycat effect?

Critics of suicide coverage often point to possible imitation as their chief concern. While they understand that reporters sometimes need to write about suicides, social scientists would like the media not to include much detail, particularly information on how the person killed himself or herself, and to stay away from splashy play--two aspects of coverage that could trigger copycats. But there is a tension between what the experts want and what the media normally do: report on newsworthy incidents with as much explanation as possible.

Covering suicides is such a touchy subject that many editors contacted for this story didn't want to talk about their policies, even in hypothetical terms. They say each situation is different and decisions are made as needed. Many news organizations don't have standing guidelines. Neither does the Society of Professional Journalists. "I think you have to take each case on its individual merits and make a decision that way," says Gary Hill, chairman of SPJ's ethics committee and director of investigations and special segments for KSTP-TV in St. Paul, Minnesota. "You can never say that you won't cover suicide, but when you do, if you can somehow help people out, that's great."

When Narda Zacchino, the San Francisco Chronicle's assistant executive editor, comes across a story involving suicide, she gives it a hard look. The paper has only limited guidelines on how incidents should be treated, such as not writing about people who jump off the Golden Gate Bridge unless they are public figures. "Suicide stories are just like all stories in that we have to ask if they are relevant to the reader at all," she says. "But we also have to pay extra attention to the extreme sensitivity of the subject matter" and how it affects survivors.

That sensitivity is exactly what sociologists and psychiatrists are seeking from news reporters. "There are times journalists don't realize the power they have," says Madelyn S. Gould, who works in the divisions of child and adolescent psychiatry at Columbia University and the New York State Psychiatric Institute. "Any details of a suicide that end up in a newspaper can easily help lead to another suicide."

This unfortunate trend of imitation has been labeled the Werther Effect because of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's 1774 novel, "The Sorrows of Young Werther," in which the protagonist shoots himself in the head. Soon after the then-popular book was published, a rash of similar suicides occurred throughout Europe, and the title was banned in much of the continent. Today, the rise in imitation suicides after media attention is well documented. A 1998 report in the book "Suicide Prevention: A Holistic Approach" reviewed various studies and concluded that "the portrayal of suicidal behaviour seems to result in an increase in (or at least a reinforcement of) such behaviour. Multiprogram and highly publicized stories have the greatest impact, more affecting youth or those predisposed." When Marilyn Monroe killed herself in 1962--a story that was widely covered by all media--there was a 12 percent rise in suicides the next month in the United States, accounting for more than 200 deaths, according to Gould.

That was a particularly high increase. David Phillips, a sociology professor at the University of California at San Diego, has been studying mortality and suicide for more than 25 years. His research has found that there is about a 2 percent increase in the number of suicides the month after a story appears in the press, he says. "If you shift attention to the week after, it's about 11 percent above expected." Those who imitate the behavior are usually about the same age as the perpetrator.

One thing that hasn't been studied extensively but concerns social scientists is the publication of suicide notes. Allowing the public to read the note can lead to confusion, not a better understanding of the story, says Gould. "Generally, the person isn't in a logical frame of mind when writing it," she says. "So it's not helpful to anyone."

Journalists don't often debate publishing notes because there isn't much access to them. According to Gould, only 30 percent to 40 percent of those who attempt suicide leave notes, and the press doesn't see the majority of them. Those that are printed create quite a controversy.

In late January, former Enron Vice Chairman Cliff Baxter killed himself. He shot himself with a .38 in his car, parked a short distance from his home, and he left a suicide note in his wife's car in the couple's garage. The note, addressed to her, consisted of seven sentences, none specifically about the energy company's huge financial scandal. Baxter was the person that Sherron Watkins, the Enron whistle-blower, mentioned in an August 2001 memo to then-Enron CEO Kenneth Lay, saying that "Baxter complained mightily to [Enron President Jeffrey] Skilling and all who would listen about the inappropriateness of our transactions." This led some conspiracy theorists to believe that Baxter had been murdered.

News organizations immediately clamored for the contents of the note, and police in Sugar Land, Texas--where the death occurred--sought a legal opinion from the state attorney general. Baxter's family argued that the correspondence was private and had no public interest. Disclosing the contents would violate the family's right of privacy, they said.

Texas State Attorney General John Cornyn ordered the release of the note on April 11. News organizations printed or broadcast excerpts or the entire contents of the following: "Carol: I am so sorry for this. I feel I just can't go on. I have always tried to do the right thing, but where there was once great pride, now it's gone. I love you and the children so much. I just can't be any good to you or myself. The pain is overwhelming. Please try to forgive me. Cliff."

Once Cornyn ruled that the note was a public record, there was no question for the Associated Press about whether or not to write about it, says Mike Silverman, the AP's managing editor. "The question of whether it was of news value overrode the family's wishes. He had become a public figure, and there was legitimate public interest in the contents of the note. We certainly don't take such things lightly."

The attorney general's opinion said that a person's privacy rights cease upon death, and it disagreed that the note was extremely personal or revealed embarrassing information. The document also stated that Baxter's position at Enron made him a figure of public interest.

Editors at the New York Times felt the reference to Baxter in the Watkins memo made his note newsworthy. "Publishing the contents of the suicide note added meaningfully to readers' understanding of one of the most poignant, human dimensions of the whole Enron scandal," wrote Times Co. spokeswoman Kathy J. Park in an e-mail to AJR.

However, Deni Elliott, director of the Practical Ethics Center at the University of Montana-Missoula, says information such as what's in a suicide note usually doesn't increase public understanding. "It's important to report that deaths are suicide in order to help alert people to the high number of suicides in this country," she says. "But publishing suicide notes and gratuitous gory details is voyeurism. Those details are important for families and professionals trying to figure out what happened."

Silverman says that decisions about suicide coverage are always a balance between what the family wants and the merits of the overall story. A suicide on its own is not a story, he says. But the stature of the person involved or the circumstances may warrant coverage. "If you have a Kurt Cobain or a Vince Foster, it's obviously not your normal story."

Cobain, the leader of the legendary Seattle grunge band Nirvana, shot himself in April 1994. He left a note near his body and the last two lines--"I love you, I love you"--were reported to the press by the man who discovered him. Cobain's wife, singer Courtney Love, read parts of his note to fans at a vigil a few days later but was incensed when the entire note, which had been kept confidential, began appearing on T-shirts within months.

There wasn't an increase in suicides in the Seattle area after Cobain's death, according to Gould. "Prevention programs were immediately put into place to counteract imitative suicides," she says, "but [the absence of copycats] is also attributed to the fact that his wife...called his death a waste and didn't romanticize it in any way." In the ensuing months, however, there were some suicides across the country that referred to Cobain's death in their notes.

Foster, President Bill Clinton's legal counsel, killed himself on July 20, 1993. A ripped-up note was found in his briefcase about a week after his death and released to the media by the Department of Justice on August 10. The contents were widely publicized. "I was not meant for the job or the spotlight of public life in Washington," Foster wrote. "Here ruining people is considered sport." Foster had played a role in the firing of seven White House travel office staffers, a controversial move for which the Clinton administration was criticized.

Jim Kelly, managing editor of Time magazine, says deciding whether to publish a note is "totally situational. I can imagine a lot of people thinking that if they left suicide notes, I'd print it in a flash, but it's not that simple. It needs to be part of a larger story, part of the public interest. And that doesn't come very often."

Kathleen Hall Jamieson, dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, disagrees with journalists' rationale for publishing the Baxter note. "If the note doesn't reveal anything about Enron and it was left in a place that wasn't intended for public viewing, then it doesn't seem journalists should be able to print it," she says.

National Public Radio experienced backlash from listeners after airing the Baxter note. NPR Ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin received a number of angry e-mails. "Listeners were surprised that NPR would do that," says Dvorkin. He says that NPR has guidelines about covering suicides, but such situations are uncommon.

"I think journalists in general don't realize there's any consequence to reporting suicide or suicide notes," he says. "But as times have changed and we've become a little wiser in our old age, we're now rethinking that. There really is a copycat effect."

But Dvorkin isn't saying suicide stories are off-limits. "We just have to be very careful about when and how we report on suicides," he says.

In October at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, a student fell from a dormitory window, but did not die. The possible suicide attempt presented editors of the weekly student paper, the Lumberjack, with an ethical challenge.

The paper had been criticized on campus the previous spring for reporting too many details of a suicide attempt, says Rob Breeding, the paper's faculty adviser. Four students came to the newsroom to complain that there was false information in the story, he says, and threatening messages were left on the dorm-room door of the reporter who wrote the story. "We weren't going to make those mistakes again," says Breeding, "but we needed to find a comfortable reporting balance, and we weren't sure whether we should print the student's name or not."

While the campus police labeled the incident a suicide attempt, Breeding wasn't so sure. He was wary of calling it something it wasn't. "We spent three days agonizing over this," he says. The next week the Lumberjack reported on the incident and named the student, but the paper didn't call it a suicide attempt. "I've been trying to find a path for us to take that allows us to avoid making these judgment calls on which part of the news we should and should not report," Breeding says. "And there isn't a way to avoid that. No matter which way we go, we're going to be withholding information."

The paper's practice had been to name anyone who committed or attempted suicide in a public space and not name anyone who had done so in private. "We'll definitely be revisiting our policy," Breeding says, "and bringing in counselors, philosophy professors, and those who deal with media ethics." One of the problems, he adds, "is that we're dealing with a college community. This is a little different from a small city. Everyone knows everyone, and students are at a critical point in their lives."

In order to help journalists with such ethical issues (as well as to lower the national suicide rate, which is about 30,000 deaths per year), the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, the American Association of Suicidology and the Annenberg Public Policy Center released a study, "Reporting on Suicide: Recommendations for the Media," in August 2001. Since its publication, the suicide rate hasn't plunged the way Austria's did in 1987 when a similar report was issued to journalists in response to a spate of suicides in Vienna's subway system. (The Austrian report said that the copycat effect would be larger if the motives for suicide were oversimplified or reported as inexplicable; it also suggested reporting where someone who was considering suicide could find help. In the six months after the guidelines were issued, subway suicides and attempts declined by 75 percent, and the total number of suicides in the capital city dropped.) Columbia's Madelyn Gould, who wrote part of the U.S. study, says researchers are still trying to get that report into the hands of journalists.

Gould admits that what the guidelines urge is the opposite of what some reporters and editors want. "Anything that captures your reader is probably what makes the story potentially harmful," she says. "The more personal and detailed it gets, the more a reader can relate to it and see him or herself within that story. That's where the danger lies."

As part of the study, researchers spent more than two years reading newspaper and magazine stories from across the country dealing with suicide. Then they interviewed the reporters who had written them and their editors about how they decided what to include and what to leave out. Researchers also analyzed suicide rates for the regions around each paper.

The goal was not to tell journalists to stop reporting on suicide, according to Gould. "The impact of printing something is variable," she says. "Publications will have to report on suicides, but they can make some changes in order to cut down on the amount of suicide contagion." (See "Media Tips.") As in the Austrian report, Gould advocates including suicide-hotline numbers or Web addresses within stories in order to help at-risk readers.

The University of California's Phillips likens a suicide story to an advertisement. The media can counteract the persuasiveness of the advertisement by listing choices other than taking one's life, he says. "If you give alternatives to potential suicides reading the story, it's like a McDonald's advertisement also mentioning a nearby pizza place."

While stories about the issue of suicides in general often include such hotline numbers, stories on individual suicides rarely do. Savoy's Roland Martin thinks news organizations should more regularly list where someone can get help. "How much does it cost me to run two or three phone numbers or Web links at the bottom of a story that might save somebody's life?" he asks. "Most people say that's goody-two-shoes journalism and we don't do that, but I think we're here to serve the public rather than just saying so-and-so killed his wife and then himself."

Gould and Jamieson bristle at splashy coverage that romanticizes or sensationalizes suicides. Tabloids, they say, are the worst offenders. Other media outlets "seemed to have occasional inadvertent dramatizations, while the tabloids go out of their way to create drama," Jamieson says.

And suicides get more front-page coverage in tabloids than in other papers. "What could glorify something more than the front page?" Gould asks.

The real bottom line in reporting on suicide, says Jamieson, is that "for the most part, it doesn't need to be covered [as graphically as] it is. A singer hangs himself with a belt from a doorknob. Why do people need to know that that is possible?" she asks.

She says she understands that the Myerson and Baxter suicides deserve coverage--but not in exhaustive detail. "The media has to understand the effect they have on society."

###