From Shame to Suicide: Is It Ever That Simple?

Two months ago, a television weatherman from Tampa, Fla., killed himself. John Winter, a WFLA meteorologist, had established himself over 13 years as a familiar, friendly face in the morning and a popular figure in the community. The local media covered the story of his death extensively. 

Winter was married and had a nice house in the suburbs and a Cadillac in the driveway. His public persona offered no hint of private struggles. Why would a guy like this take his own life?

Then, two days ago, police released the records of their investigation. Before ending his life, Winter wrote a note (contents not released), opened a Bible (to John 14) and, based on accounts provided to police, placed a conference call to his wife and his best friend to tell them he was ashamed of something he had done — he’d had an affair.

Now, assume you’re a newspaper editor. What’s the headline? Think about it for a minute.

The Tampa Tribune went with something pretty straightforward: “Before His Suicide, Winter Revealed Affair.”

The St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times, which is owned by The Poynter Institute, asserted a connection: “WFLA Weatherman’s Suicide Linked to an Affair.”

The Tampa Bay Times (the free tabloid produced by the St. Petersburg Times five days a week) had to be a little more careful, or at least more clever. The paper doesn’t have subscribers. With all of its covers, it needs to find ways to get people to pick up the paper from news racks.

Hmm. One suggestion made in the tbt* office: “FATAL AFFAIR.” No. Another: “DEADLY…” No. Hmm. Finally: “HE DIED OF SHAME.” 

Asked on Wednesday why he chose the headline, tbt* editor Neville Green told me this: “[The story] looked at somebody who, in an age in which we often think that behavior is shameless, had a deep sense of shame.”

He continued: “We have a clear mandate that we are out to find people, many of whom don’t read newspapers, or are not in a daily newspaper reading habit. … People who think the newspaper is boring.”

Not long after the paper hit the streets Wednesday morning, Times media critic Eric Deggans started getting e-mails from staffers. Most of them were “horrified” about the headline, he said in an interview that evening. So, Deggans, who was credited for information that was used in the tbt* version of the story, wrote a blog post.

He wrote: “The first thing I want my readers to know, is that I didn’t have anything to do with the tbt* headline in print editions today on the John Winter story: He Died of Shame.”

Deggans continued: “What upset me most about today’s headline was its adoption of a misconception that suicide prevention activists have been fighting for years: that a single incident can ’cause’ suicide.”

tbt*‘s Green said that he couldn’t possibly know every factor that led to Winter’s suicide. What set this case apart from other suicides, he said, were the robust details in the police investigation. “In this one,” Green said, “we have a man that before he killed himself, he held a conversation with people close to him about the issues that were haunting him.”

Winter revealed that he had an affair, that he was ashamed and that he wanted to kill himself. tbt*’s read on that series of events: “HE DIED IN SHAME.” Green’s response when asked how he could know what caused Winter’s death: “It didn’t seem like we were reading his mind.”

For Dr. Yeates Conwell, co-director of the Center for the Study and Prevention of Suicide at the University of Rochester Medical Center, that interpretation is a little too simple.

Conwell’s analysis of the headline: “He did something bad. He felt shame. He punished himself for it.

“That’s such a simplistic linear interpretation; it just doesn’t display the complexity of it.”

About 32,500 people committed suicide in the United States in 2004, the most recent year for which Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data is available. It was the nation’s 11th leading cause of death that year. The factors leading up to suicide are not easily traced. As the National Institute of Mental Health puts it, “Suicidal behavior is complex.”

According to Conwell, most people who commit suicide are not thinking rationally. “The suicidal state,” he said, “is not one in which reason is functioning effectively, most, if not all the time.” People who commit suicide, he said, are rarely capable of determining the causes of their own despair.

Although the complexity of suicide is often lost in news reports (see the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s examples of “problematic coverage”), it is possible to report accurately and responsibly on the topic.

That’s what St. Petersburg Times managing editor Stephen Buckley was pushing for in the coverage — and what displeased him about the tbt* headline when he saw it Wednesday morning.

“I found myself thinking, hmm, I don’t think that’s what the story says,” Buckley said in an interview Friday morning. When he got to the 11 a.m. news meeting, Buckley said he found he wasn’t the only one thinking that. “If there were people in that room who supported the headline, they were pretty quiet that morning.”

The story, written by Times staffer Abbie VanSickle, was shaped by several discussions that took place throughout the reporting, Buckley said. Editors talked about where to play the story. They debated whether to reveal the name of the woman was believed to have had the affair with Winter. (They decided not to.)

“There can’t be too much discussion about how [a story about suicide] is handled, how it’s written, how it’s played, the headline,” Buckley said. “There’s no such thing as over-talking a story like that.”

Even though tbt* gets most of its content from its parent newspaper, it writes its own headlines. “tbt* is very much its own entity,” Buckley said. But despite this division, both tbt*’s Green and the Times‘ Buckley said the two publications hold the same journalistic values; they just serve different audiences.

“We would never put something in tbt* that’s just plain wrong,” Buckley said. “tbt* is not the National Enquirer. I do think that we aim for different audiences and, in part because of that, tbt* tends to have an edge and tends to take some risks that the St. Petersburg Times broadsheet may not take.”

Buckley said this most recent risk — the Winter headline — has led to some “very, very good conversations” about the relationship between the two publications.

And while reflection is important, Buckley said, he wishes there had been more discussion about the headline on Tuesday, before Wednesday’s edition of tbt* went to bed.

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