tbt* Suicide Coverage: Opportunity Flubbed

By Bob Steele
Nelson Poynter Scholar for Journalism Values
Contributors: Scott Libin, Bill Mitchell

What
were they thinking?

That’s
a polite way of expressing the anger aimed at the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times for its
May 30th coverage of the suicide of local television meteorologist John
Winter.

I
don’t share all of the views represented in the reader comments posted to the
paper’s Web site
(scroll down below story).
Most of the facts involved in this case are newsworthy. The Times, which
is owned by The Poynter Institute, was right to report them. 

My
criticism has more to do with tone and proportion, and is primarily targeted at the Tampa Bay Times, the free daily tabloid published by the Times.

The tbt* cover on that day is dominated by a large color photo of Winter with the
overlaid headline, “HE DIED OF SHAME: Weatherman John Winter had a secret he
feared his wife could never forgive: an affair.”

tbt*
and the Times journalists who edit tbt* were way out of bounds on this
judgment call. The tone is unwise and the intensity is unfair. The headline is
a “screamer” in the worst way.

The
idea of tbt*, as editor Neville Green told my colleague Pat Walters, is to
reach new readers. 
There’s nothing wrong with experimenting with jazzier headlines and graphics in
pursuit of the additional customers it will take to sustain 21st century
business models.

This
is a broader issue than broadsheet vs. tabloid editions. News organizations
face similar issues in serving the different audiences they attract to their
online editions. Interestingly, tbt* used a far tamer (and more accurate)
headline on its Web site: “Before suicide, a confession”. 

The
challenge is to find bold and enterprising paths to new and different audiences
without violating fundamental journalistic
principles and responsibilities. In this case, the values of fairness and
respect fell victim to the pursuit of eyeballs.

Yes,
there is a story to be told. The police investigation of the suicide revealed
an extramarital affair that was newsworthy given the context of when and how
Winter died and the 911 call that preceded his death on April 5.

It’s
the tbt* cover that fails journalistically and ethically. Beyond the disrespect
and harm to key stakeholders, including Winter’s family, the headline and
intensive play fly in the face of advice from experts in the field of suicide
and analysts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A
CDC report puts it this way: “Some characteristics of news coverage of suicide
may contribute to contagion, and other characteristics may help prevent
suicide. Clinicians and researchers acknowledge that it is not news coverage of
suicide per se, but certain types of news coverage, that promote contagion.”

It
was nearly 20 years ago that clinicians, researchers and other health
professionals were joined by journalists at a national workshop exploring the
coverage of suicide. That workshop report  concluded
that “the likelihood of suicide contagion may be increased by the following
actions”:

  • “Presenting simplistic explanations for
    suicide. Suicide is never the result of a single factor or event, but rather
    results from complex interaction of many factors and usually involves a history
    of psychosocial problems. Public officials and the media should carefully
    explain that the final precipitating event was not the only cause of a given
    suicide. Most persons who have committed suicide have had a history of problems
    that may not have been acknowledged during the acute aftermath of the suicide…”
  • “Providing sensational coverage of suicide. By
    its nature, news coverage of a suicidal event tends to heighten the general
    public’s preoccupation with suicide. This reaction is also believed to be
    associated with contagion and the development of suicide clusters…”
  • “Glorifying suicide or persons who commit
    suicide. News coverage is less likely to contribute to suicide contagion when
    reports of community expressions of grief (e.g. public eulogies…) are
    minimized. Such actions may contribute to suicide contagion by suggestion to
    susceptible persons that society is honoring suicidal behavior of the deceased
    person, rather than mourning the person’s death.”

What’s
sensational to one reader may reflect appropriate emphasis to another, of
course. But the use of blood-red, inch-and-a-half type (“SHAME”) does tip the
scales toward the former.

Nothing
about the May 30th coverage glorified Winter’s actions. But much of
the immediate coverage of his April 5th suicide took the form of extensive
tributes. The initial stories also focused on the shock and surprise of
colleagues, as well as lots of unanswered questions. All of that may have
heightened what editors and news directors around Tampa Bay saw as their journalistic responsibility, nearly two
months later, to report subsequent revelations and potential explanations in
great detail.

Readers of tbt* were left with a headline and presentation that too
easily ascribed a simple explanation to what the experts say is almost always
a more complex decision.

Suicide
is one of those issues that is both dramatic and complicated, just the kind of
issue that cries out for the best, most careful work of journalists.

In
this case, tbt* failed to measure up.

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