Best practices for covering suicide responsibly

Suicide made headlines several times this week. How can journalists, celebrities and anyone who might make a post on social media embrace some best practices that will minimize contagion? (Yes, contagion is real.)

I’ve been working with Dan Reidenberg, executive director of SAVE, for years to help journalists cover suicide.

Here are some best practices from Reporting on Suicide.

  • Include information about warning signs of suicide.
  • Include messaging that suicide is not a natural or logical outcome of adversity. Instead, include a message of hope: Recovery is possible. In fact, most people who think about suicide do recover.
  • Avoid stating the means of death. Yes, we are all curious. Responsible news organizations who feel compelled to include some detail will report it low in the story, but avoid putting it in headlines, teasers, captions, or social text.
  • Use neutral photos of the individual. And avoid photos that invoke melancholy. Images of a person who appears peaceful, calm and serene send a message that suicide will get you to that peaceful place.
  • Describe suicide trends accurately, and without alarm. Suicide is rising, but not epic, or skyrocketing.
  • Choose the passive voice or indirect actors. Although we usually avoid this in good writing, in this case it reduces the agency of the actor. “A note was found.” “Investigators believe the cause of death was X.”
  • Include quotes and advice from suicide prevention experts about what works. More specifically, “Treatment and intervention work.”
  • Use neutral headlines like, “John Doe, dead at 60.”

The Associated Press Stylebook adds further guidance:

Generally, AP does not cover suicides or suicide attempts, unless the person involved is a well-known figure our the circumstances are particularly unusual or publicly disruptive. ... Avoid using "committed suicide" except in direct quotations from authorities. Alternate phrases included "killed himself," "took her own life" or "died by suicide." The verb "commit" with "suicide" can imply a criminal act. 

Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255

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    Kelly McBride

    Kelly McBride is a writer, teacher and one of the country’s leading voices when it comes to media ethics. She has been on the faculty of The Poynter Institute since 2002 and is now its senior vice president.

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