How to cover the Robin Williams story responsibly

The suspected suicide of comedian Robin Williams is an opportunity for journalists to give more coverage to a topic that deserves it. Suicide rates in the United States rose between 2000 and 2007.

But screaming headlines, speculation and images of crying fans could do a lot of harm. Journalists have to cover such high-profile deaths — the key question is how.

The CDC reported last year that in 2009, more people died from suicide than from car accidents. It also found “substantial increases in suicide rates among middle-aged adults in the United States.”

Baby Boomers “who have faced years of economic worry and easy access to prescription painkillers may be particularly vulnerable to self-inflicted harm,” Tara Parker-Pope wrote in a New York Times article about the CDC’s findings.

From 1999 to 2010, the suicide rate among Americans ages 35 to 64 rose by nearly 30 percent, to 17.6 deaths per 100,000 people, up from 13.7. Although suicide rates are growing among both middle-aged men and women, far more men take their own lives. The suicide rate for middle-aged men was 27.3 deaths per 100,000, while for women it was 8.1 deaths per 100,000.

Coverage Guidelines

The American Association of Suicidology has this collection of recommendations for journalists who cover the issue.

The AAS makes three big points:

  • More than 50 research studies worldwide have found that certain types of news coverage can increase the likelihood of suicide in vulnerable individuals. The magnitude of the increase is related to the amount,  duration and prominence of coverage.

  • Risk of additional suicides increases when the story explicitly describes the suicide method, uses dramatic/ graphic headlines or images, and repeated/extensive coverage sensationalizes or glamorizes a death.

  • Covering suicide carefully, even briefly, can change public misperceptions and correct myths, which can encourage those who are vulnerable or at risk to seek help.

One of the most common mistakes that journalists can make in covering suicide is to advance the notion that one big thing caused someone to take their life.  Suicide is a complex response that usually involves lots of factors including mental illness. In fact, suicide experts estimate 90 percent of suicides have some connection to mental illness and/or substance abuse. Both are treatable.

A couple of years ago I helped teach a workshop for journalists who cover suicides. The Dart Foundation pulled together tons of resources that will help you, including these:

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  • Corey Dobridnia

    Was wondering if you agreed with the airing of the method in which he committed suicide.

  • Christine Mendonca

    This is excellent information for both journalists and non-journalists alike.

  • http://www.cbsnewyork.com Steve Scott

    Thank you for this, Al. Valuable information.
    Steve Scott
    WCBS Newsradio 880
    NY, NY

  • http://www.latindescargas.info/ Hernan Torrealba

    Una gran perdida para el mundo del espectáculo paz a sus restos