Stories about heart disease and cancer, the first and second leading causes of death in the United States, are all over the news. But when it comes to covering suicide, the tenth leading cause of death, news organizations are wary. When they do cover it, they are often spurred by an immediate breaking story. Those stories can be reactive. And sometimes, they do more harm than good.
“Media only report on it in certain circumstances, when there’s an event,” said Jack Benson, a member of the executive committee of the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention. “There’s not a lot of proactive work in covering it as a public health issue, even though it’s the 10th leading cause of death overall and the 4th leading cause of death for all people 25-64.”
The reason there isn’t a lot of proactive coverage of suicide, Benson said, is that journalists just don’t feel prepared to talk about it.
Often when a journalist is tasked with writing about suicide, it’s because someone has just died and the person or the event is considered newsworthy.
Instead of only writing about suicide when there has been a death that is newsworthy, Benson said he hopes “the narrative over time changes to focus on hope and recovery.” September is suicide awareness month, and Benson and the National Action Alliance are working to educate journalists on how to cover suicide more proactively.
“With time, the hope is to move the conversation from reactive narrative, where the coverage is about an event, the loss of life, the sense that nothing could have been done, that there were no signs, to a more empowering narrative,” he said, “We all have a role in this, we all can do something.”
Here are five steps you can take to prepare your newsroom to cover suicide more effectively:
Sites like reportingonsuicide.org, the CDC, and the Action Alliance have resources for journalists covering suicide. Poynter’s News University has a resource page for journalists as well. Be aware of these before your news organization faces a tragedy it must react to. There are also resources online and in your community for people who may be at risk for suicide. Pointing your audience to places to go for help is a way to empower them.
Look for stories of hope and recovery
If a news organization only covers suicide when it is absolutely necessary, like when a famous person takes his or her own life, the overall story is one of tragedy, not recovery or hope. Not all stories related to suicide are tragic, as many people who have suicidal ideations get help and move forward, Benson said.
Don’t fall for the simple narrative
If you talk to a parent right after the loss of his or her child to suicide, the parent may attribute the suicide to a single cause, such as bullying. But bullying does not lead to suicide. It’s dangerous to suggest bullying causes suicide, Kelly McBride argued in 2013, because a bullied child may begin to see suicide as a cure, a relief from what he or she is experiencing. “The reporter might find that if they go back later, [the parent] will acknowledge that there was not any one factor,” Benson said. “Most of the experts in the field will say there’s not a single risk factor–it’s a complex interaction among a number of different pressures.”
Report on risk factors and higher-risk groups
Middle-aged men are at especially high risk for suicide, Benson said, and are often unlikely to seek help. By doing justice to stories of men who have sought help and are living full lives, and by pointing to community resources, journalists may be able to have a positive impact on undercovered groups.
Your headline, social media posts, body copy and deck all matter and should be chosen with care. In 2015, the Associated Press updated the AP Stylebook’s guidelines for reporting on suicide. Among other related recommendations, the Stylebook instructs journalists to use “killed herself” or “took her own life” rather than “committed suicide.” Benson urges journalists to be conscious of all elements of the story, including the narrative arc. Journalists may be able to prevent suicide clusters, research has shown, so it’s important to be aware of the overall message of your story and whether you include certain details that may add to the sensationalism of the story but are not ultimately necessary and may be insensitive. Both Benson and McBride acknowledge that in today’s journalism environment, avoiding the temptation to add sensational details can be difficult. “And when you decide a story is interesting enough to tell, you want to pack it full of emotional punch,” McBride said. “But those details can be a factor that contributes to a suicide cluster.”
If you have more questions about covering suicide, the National Action Alliance has organized three free panels for journalists this month. The first, focusing on the risk group of men in their middle years, is today. More information is here.
In partnership with the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention (the Action Alliance), Poynter built a curriculum to train journalists to promote responsible coverage of suicide and mental health. The Action Alliance is the national public-private partnership advancing the National Strategy for Suicide Prevention.