May 17, 2011

Recently, journalists at Tampa’s WTVT showed that with skill, thought and a little extra time and effort, suicide can be covered in a meaningful way.

Reporter Deborah Bowden told the story of a 10-year-old Tampa Bay area boy who, she said, had been sent to his room for a “time-out.”  Later the boy was found dead, strangled by a cord in his closet.

The station didn’t name the child or family, gave no specifics about where he lived or where he went to school.

While it was the lead story on the FOX station’s flagship 10 p.m. newscast, the story was light on hyped-up adjectives and heavy on specific advice from child behavior experts.

To evaluate the coverage, I consulted with an expert on suicide, Dr. Lanny Berman, the Executive Director of the American Association of Suicidology, who agreed to watch the story and help deconstruct it. (See a line-by-line deconstruction of the video story below.)

Generally, Berman agreed the TV station did well. TV Mirrors also had suggestions for improvements.

Anchor John Wilson said on the air that the station had to consider whether to “report the story at all.” But the American Association of Suicidology says:

“The media can play a powerful role in educating the public about suicide prevention. Stories about suicide
can inform readers and viewers about the likely causes of suicide, its warning signs, trends in suicide rates, and recent treatment advances. They can also highlight opportunities to prevent suicide. Media stories about individual deaths by suicide may be newsworthy and need to be covered, but they also have the potential to do harm. Implementation of recommendations for media coverage of suicide has been shown to decrease suicide rates.”

WTVT’s reporting was mostly in line with the American Association of Suicidology’s specific recommendations for news coverage:

Limit descriptions of how the victim did it. says:

“Exposure to suicide method through media reports can encourage vulnerable individuals to imitate it. Clinicians believe the danger is even greater if there is a detailed description of the method. Research indicates that detailed descriptions or pictures of the location or site of a suicide encourage imitation.”

WTVT’s story was straightforward and brief in its reporting of where and how the child died. It was mentioned once on air and then the story moved on.

But the station’s website was more detailed, reporting, “she went to check on the boy and found him hanging by his neck from a shelving unit in the closet, with a noose fashioned from a game system cord.”  Dr. Berman says that level of detail is potentially problematic. “It gives children instructions on how to kill themselves. Our research is clear that the more specific the details are the more potential there is for copycats.” says, “Research suggests that inadvertently romanticizing suicide or idealizing those who take their own lives by portraying suicide as a heroic or romantic act may encourage others to identify with the victim.” I have often seen journalists describe victims as good kids who were beloved. Reports that focus on outpourings of grief on Facebook or that include man-on-the-street interviews of shock and surprise give others who might consider suicide ideas that this might be a good option. WTVT did none of that. There was no speculation about why the child may have done this.

But Berman says a key point gets lost in the story. He says typically, as investigations unfold, underlying motivations emerge. Berman says there is almost never a singular simple reason for suicide.

Avoid “presenting suicide as the inexplicable act of an otherwise healthy or high-achieving person.” This is one of the biggest mistakes I see in suicide coverage, the notion that these are often “spur of the moment” acts. They usually are not. And they are not usually easily explained away by statements like, “he got a bad grade on a science test,” or “he was upset about having to wear braces.”

WTVT pointed out that constant conversation is the key to preventing suicides. Suicidologists agree, saying, “Over 90 percent of suicide victims have a significant psychiatric illness at the time of their deaths. These are often undiagnosed, untreated, or both.” explains:

“An individual suicide cannot be adequately explained as the understandable response to an individual’s stressful occupation, or an individual’s membership in a group encountering discrimination. Social conditions alone do not explain a suicide. People who appear to become suicidal in response to such events, or in response to a physical illness, generally have significant underlying mental problems, though they may be well-hidden.”

In this case, the St. Petersburg Times added that, “At age 5, [the boy] battled Burkitts lymphoma, a rare type of cancer that often affects children. It was in full remission.” That information seems useful to help us understand what the family must be going through. They beat cancer, now this.

Don’t depend on relatives or friends to explain what happened. We can only imagine a family’s shock and grief, especially when the death involves a child. Suicideology reports that, “during the period immediately after a death by suicide, grieving family members or friends have difficulty understanding what happened. Responses may be extreme, problems may be minimized, and motives may be complicated.”

WTVT’s coverage wisely included none of those kinds of interviews.  The piece did include some information from Tampa Police spokesperson Laura McElroy, who confirmed that police, so far, had not pinpointed a motivation or even a warning. As a viewer, I found the Chief’s comments useful because I didn’t have to wonder if police suspected something other than suicide as the cause.

The American Association of Suicidology includes other specific recommendations. I include them with some of my thoughts:

  • “Whenever possible, it is preferable to avoid referring to suicide in the headline. Unless the suicide death took place in public, the cause of death should be reported in the body of the story and not in the headline.” I think we should also factor in the prominence of the deceased. If the victim is a public official, the subject of widespread news coverage, a witness in a high-profile trial, the cause of death is a key part of the story.
  • “In deaths that will be covered nationally, such as of celebrities, or those apt to be covered locally, such as persons living in small towns, consider phrasing for headlines such as: ‘Marilyn Monroe dead at 36,’ or ‘John Smith dead at 48.’ Consideration of how they died could be reported in the body of the article.” The best reason NOT to use “suicide” in a headline is when suicide may NOT be the cause. Monroe’s death was from a drug overdose but decades later, it is still uncertain whether it was suicide, an accident or even homicide. The coroner called the cause of death “probable” suicide.
  • “In the body of the story, it is preferable to describe the deceased as ‘having died by suicide,’ rather than as ‘a suicide,’ or having ‘committed suicide.’ ” The latter two expressions reduce the person to the mode of death, or connote criminal or sinful behavior.” I would be interested in your reactions to this distinction. I think it is similar to avoiding “disabled person” and using “person with a disability” instead. When you can, honor the fact that it is a person first. Time pressures sometimes force journalists to use shorthand phrases.
  • Avoid terms such as like “successful,” “unsuccessful” or “failed” when referring to suicides. I mostly agree with this recommendation. It reminds me of the phrase “drug deal gone bad.” It seems to me that a drug deal that is unconsummated is a good thing, not a bad thing. Would “attempted suicide” be clearer?

WTVT interviewed child and adolescent psychiatrist Dr. Jillian Glass, who said that it can be difficult to know whether a child understands what suicide means.

“Actually, 10 years old is really just the minimum age that a child even understands the concept of death,” Glass said. “And I think that’s why this is so tragic. It’s possible this 10 year old didn’t understand the severity of his actions.”

Dr. Berman says while that is “generally an old belief that 10-year-olds and younger do not understand death, it depends on the child. Bright children or those who have been exposed to death can fully understand the concept as young as age six.”

In fact, Berman says, the notion that children under age 10 do not understand suicide may contribute to inaccurate reporting of young deaths.

“Some coroners will not classify a death under age 10 as a suicide,” Berman told me. “It is a reason we have so few recorded because the coroner won’t sign off on the cause of death being anything but accidental.”

Dr. Leslie Kille with the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay said, “Kids don’t talk as much about what they’re doing. They may journal. They may blog, but they’re not sitting down sharing what they’re thinking or feeling with someone else.”

That was the key message in WTVT’s story, the need for communication about suicide. Berman praised the station for listing risk factors and offering “proactive steps” for preventing suicide.

Watch as we go line-by-line through the WTVT story and point out what the station did well and how we can improve on this good coverage. The one thing that would be worse than losing a young life is to lose it and learn nothing from that loss.

Previously: “Covering Teen Suicide, One Paper’s Decision; “How to Tell a Teen Suicide Story“; “Reporting On Suicide.”

Correction: The original version of this piece had the wrong title for Tampa Police spokesperson Laura McElroy.

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Al Tompkins is one of America's most requested broadcast journalism and multimedia teachers and coaches. After nearly 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer,…
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