April 8, 2019

Bob Wise had been in the TV news business for decades, but he’d never run up against anything quite like this: In the spring of 2014, two high school students died by suicide only weeks apart, one in public and near a school.

Wise, the vice president/general manager of KOBI TV in Medford, Oregon, knew the long-held journalistic taboos about reporting about suicides. Celebrity suicides — they get coverage. But otherwise, better to treat suicide as a private matter, to protect friends and family, and to eliminate the risk that the stories would lead to other people to take their own lives.

“Still, we could see something happening here,” Wise said in a recent interview. “We didn’t want to work off the same old protocol, which was essentially to do nothing.”

Wise turned an old friend, Dwight Holton, chief executive officer of Lines for Life, a Portland-based nonprofit focused on suicide prevention. Holton told him that news media coverage of suicide could avoid copycat cases — what experts call contagion — with smart, sensitive coverage that includes messages of hope for people in crisis.

“Turns out there was a better way, and I thought more journalists should know about it,” Wise said. He encouraged Holton to go directly to news directors and editors with his message.

Holton agreed. A media-savvy former U.S. attorney from Oregon, Holton had been in this job about a year and already saw the need to get news agencies to change the way they covered suicide.

“Tell someone that nearly three people a day die by suicide in Oregon,” he said, “and they will tell you that you are wrong because they haven’t seen that in the paper.”

After years of work, Holton’s message has broken through. This week, more than 30 Oregon news outlets have launched an unprecedented collaboration.

The stories — from op-eds to pieces about resources and prevention to deeply-reported investigative and solutions stories — share the common goal of putting “a spotlight on a problem that claimed the lives of more than 800 Oregonians last year.”

Under the shared banner “Breaking the Silence,” the stories started rolling out April 6 and will appear in outlets as large as The Oregonian and Oregon Public Broadcasting — the state’s dominant news outlets — and span the state’s deep urban-rural divide in small-town papers, on television and radio stations, and through web-only sites. The stories are available on breakingthesilenceor.com and being shared via Twitter @BreakSilenceOR.

“I hope it has the intended impact of making Oregonians aware of the problem of suicide in our state,” said John Schrag, executive editor of Pamplin Media Group, which owns the Portland Tribune and 23 other papers. “It’s a problem that our industry has really possibly made worse by not reporting it and reporting it badly.”

Oregon has seen its suicide rate on the rise and now ranks 14th nationwide. The numbers are especially alarming for young people: suicide is the second leading cause of death among Oregonians ages 10 to 24.

Still, the Oregon collaboration is notable. News organizations had to face up to their past mistakes and then find a way to work with long-time rivals to forge the partnership.

“There isn’t a scoop or need to be out in front of everybody,” said Morgan Holm, senior vice president and chief content officer at Oregon Public Broadcasting. “There’s more strength in numbers here to show that all of us are trying to learn together, and all of us are learning from each other, and all of us collectively recognize the impact of this issue on the community, and are trying to deal with it.”

Therese Bottomly, editor of The Oregonian/OregonLive, said: “I really want to raise awareness. And, if I’m honest, we hope to reduce deaths.”

Collaborations among news rivals have become more common in the past decade as budgets shrink and journalists struggle to demonstrate their relevance. News organizations in both Seattle and San Francisco joined together in recent years to report on homelessness. And collaborations have seen success. Reporters from the Tampa Bay Times and Sarasota Herald-Tribune joined together to uncover neglect at Florida’s mental health hospitals, a project that earned them a joint Pulitzer for investigative reporting in 2016.

In reaching out to news organizations, Lines for Life’s Holton said they weren’t seeking a collaborative effort, just a chance to educate journalists about ways it was safe — and responsible — to cover suicide: Don’t glamorize it. Don’t focus on the method. And don’t frame the death as triggered by some single event in the person’s life.

“Suicide is never that simple,” he said. “It’s complex and never, ever only about one thing.”

Last fall, more than 40 journalists, experts and survivors gathered in Portland to discuss better ways to cover suicide. Presentations by experts and survivors convinced journalists that covering suicides responsibly — by sharing resources and stories of hope and healing — can save lives.

The day ended with reporters and editors in the room feeling the weight of past misunderstandings and overwhelmed by the reporting scale needed to capture everything they had learned.

“It used to be that someone would say: ‘Here’s a big idea,’ and then you would marshal your newsroom,” Schrag said. “But no one has the capacity to do that anymore.”

The summit ended with news organizations agreeing to find a way to collaborate, something major media in the state have rarely done. Bottomly, of The Oregonian/Oregonlive, said the partnership made sense given the common ground over wanting to prevent unnecessary deaths.

“It helps that this is an issue where it is not divided by an anti- vs. pro- construct,” she said.

News organizations had to step cautiously around old rivalries to figure out who would organize the project: Oregon Public Broadcasting, with its statewide reach, assumed the role. Holton’s organization, having brought the journalists together, was told to step back so the news outlets could assert their independence from the advocacy group while still turning to Lines for Life for expertise.

“We’re so worried sometimes that our reporting on this subject will do more harm than good,” said Jade McDowell, a reporter and editor for the East Oregonian/Hermiston Herald in rural Umatilla County. “It’s nice to be able to go into a story with the resources and support we’ve been given to help us tackle the subject of suicide following best practices.”

Rather than collaborate on a set run list, news outlets produced their own stories that best fit with their newsroom’s cultures and spoke to their communities.

Street Roots, an alternative weekly in Portland long focused on homelessness, published a solutions story about the link between eviction and suicide, and how one local county has reduced its suicide rate through intervention and prevention resources. The Bend Bulletin is examining the connection between social media and suicide. And the Blue Mountain Eagle in Grant County, population 7,200, will profile a planned suicide prevention program.

“I was encouraged when I saw other journalists were attempting to tackle the issue,” said Sean Hart, general manager and editor of Blue Mountain Eagle, which has been publishing stories on suicide for the past year. “Hopefully, by talking about it and providing prevention resources, we can start a real conversation about solving the suicide problem — and ensure those lost are not forgotten.”

The collaboration’s stories will publish over a week, but in Medford, KOBI’s Bob Wise has told his staff the station has committed to sustaining its focus on issues around suicide for the next two years.

“It takes us back to what journalism is good at: making a difference in positive ways by providing a message of hope and to let people know there are resources out there,” Wise said. “If that can save one person, isn’t it worth it?”

Correction: This story has been updated to correct Bob Wise’s job title.

Brent Walth is an assistant professor at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication. He is a Pulitzer-Prize winning reporter and a former senior investigative reporter at The Oregonian and managing editor for news at Willamette Week.

Nicole Dahmen is an associate professor at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication where she studies and teaches journalism and ethics. She has written more than 30 peer-reviewed articles in such diverse journals as American Behavioral Scientist, Journalism Studies, Digital Journalism and Newspaper Research Journal.

Walth and Dahmen co-direct The Catalyst Journalism Project at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication. Catalyst is a teaching, reporting and research initiative which brings together investigative reporting and solutions journalism. Learn more here

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