Unfortunately, mainstream sources aren’t doing much better. Yes, I know TMZ is a tabloid. I understand its business model is fueled by click bait. But I had hoped—even in those murky waters—there would be some level of journalistic decency in suicide reporting. I thought wrong.
In one week, we have lost two celebrities (Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade) to apparent suicide. While coverage of Bourdain’s death appears to be taking a more measured tone, TMZ’s reporting on the death of designer Kate Spade left me disgusted.
Like its much-maligned coverage of the April suicide of famed Swedish DJ Avicii, the tabloid explicitly detailed how Spade killed herself. It even went so far as to mention the color of the implement used. That questionable content later appeared in Associated Press copy, but appears to have been removed in subsequent versions.
As journalists, we have a responsibility to empower people through information. Our job is to give you the facts you need to make decisions about your life, society and government. At the same time, we also have a duty to minimize harm. It’s a balancing test, weighing public need for information against the harm of undue intrusiveness. While many of the events we cover demand sensitivity in our decision-making, suicide may require the most. Why, you ask? Suicide Contagion.
Health researchers talk about Suicide contagion quite often. They have discovered that media reports regarding suicide have the potential to influence other vulnerable individuals to take their own life. HOW we cover suicides matters!
The issue isn’t going away.
A just-released report from the CDC, shows suicides are up nearly 30 percent in the U.S. since 1999. Mental health conditions are a big factor in those deaths, but the report reveals other complexities. Namely, it cites relationship troubles, substance use; health, job and financial problems. Now, let’s consider recent coverage.
Does TMZ minimize harm by disclosing—in detail—how Spade apparently hanged herself? Does it minimize harm by publicizing the content of a note Spade left for her daughter, the very day the designer was found dead? I think not.
When a celebrity suicide occurs, readers and viewers often wonder why some outlets include information other news organizations choose to omit. Why are the articles so different? The truth is, while there are guidelines for suicide coverage, each outlet sets its own rules. Most follow AP standards, and will only cover suicides or suicide attempts if the person involved is a well-known figure or the circumstances are particularly disruptive.
The most complete resource for journalists right now appears to be ReportingOnSuicide.org. It was developed in collaboration with Associated Press managing editors, the CDC and Annenberg Public Policy Center, among other groups. The World Health Organization also has guidelines for responsible reporting.
In general, health researchers urge reporters to treat suicide as a public health issue and to encourage help-seeking. Among their recommendations:
In conclusion, let’s remember it is more than reporting—we all play a role in reducing suicide contagion. Let’s watch for the warning signs and treat each other with care and compassion. Even seemingly “perfect” lives have challenges.