December 7, 2012

When they learned of their source’s suicide, the Tampa Bay Times journalists who had recently published a story about Gretchen Molannen’s medical condition looked back over their communications for clues. But they found nothing, Tampa Bay Times Managing Editor Mike Wilson told me Thursday in an interview.

Molannen died some time between Thursday evening and Saturday evening. The story about her persistent state of sexual arousal was posted online Friday and was distributed in the printed edition of the paper on Sunday.

“We had concerns about Gretchen as a person because we knew she had attempted to take her life before,” Wilson said. The paper “sought to find out if she felt strong enough, well enough to talk about this issue with us.”

Molannen repeatedly reassured the Times journalists that she was committed to the story, Wilson said.

Leonora LaPeter Anton listened to Molannen tell her story for three and half hours during their first interview, Wilson said. Molannen called later and advised Anton that a friend had advised her to withdraw her consent. But Molannen did just the opposite. She told Anton she wanted to see the story published.

In reply, Anton stressed to Molannen that it really was her choice, Wilson said. More than a month passed and the two had no contact. As the publication date for the story approached, Anton reconnected with Molannen, Wilson said, and took the unusual step of reading her the story word-for-word. The reporter wanted her source to know exactly what the story would say.

Journalists often tell stories of people who are emotionally debilitated by their circumstances, whether it is a war veteran, unemployed worker or a person suffering from a medical condition.

Wilson, who’s done some reading on suicide, pointed out that researchers have a very hard time predicting who, among those who’ve attempted suicide in the past, will commit suicide in the future. And it’s impossible to say the Times’ story was directly responsible.

When people commit suicide, the logic is complicated and researchers caution journalists and lay people to avoid drawing a direct line between one event and the suicide.

“It’s impossible to tell” if the story contributed to her choice to take her life, Wilson said. “Ultimately I think the question is beyond my understanding. I only know that I’m sorry she made the choice and that I’m proud our journalists treated her in a humane and sensitive way throughout.”

When reporters call me, concerned about a source’s mental health, I suggest this checklist:

  • Does this person seem to have a support system of family, friends or professionals?
  • Does she seem to be making rational choices in the rest of her life? Does she get out of bed? Eat? Go grocery shopping? Have normal interactions?
  • Can she imagine the story online? Does she understand how others will see and consume the story?
  • Have you asked her if she’s suicidal? (Professionals often say if you are worried about someone, ask. You can’t plant the idea to commit suicide by asking about it.)

Related: Suicide by source: What do you do when a story is followed by the worst possible outcome?

Reporters sometimes come up with creative alternatives, when they feel a source is in danger of harming himself. One reporter once called a law enforcement friend of a man he was about to expose as corrupt. Another gave a source the phone number to a mental health hotline. In cases where there is no urgent need to run a story, reporters often give a source a month or so to think about it and back out, as they did at The Times.

Gretchen Molannen’s story will stay online because the journalism holds up, Wilson said. Other people suffer from this condition and they get very little understanding, he said. The Times story has been updated to reflect Molannen’s death.

Poynter owns the Tampa Bay Times though the two organizations operate independently under the same Chairman, Paul Tash.

Support high-integrity, independent journalism that serves democracy. Make a gift to Poynter today. The Poynter Institute is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, and your gift helps us make good journalism better.
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…
Kelly McBride

More News

Back to News


Comments are closed.