Carol Cruzan Morton has been writing about science and medical issues for more than 30 years, but she’s never taken on the topic of suicide. She’d heard for years about the taboos journalists faced in writing about it, which boiled down to: Don’t do it.
The way in which the news media wrote about suicides, the argument went, could actually trigger suicidal thoughts among readers. But suicide rates are on the rise, and recent celebrity suicides, including Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, forced the news media to deal with the issue.
Last fall, Morton, a freelance writer, joined an unprecedented collaboration among Oregon news organizations to bring stories about suicide prevention to readers, viewers and listeners across the state. With her scientific mindset, Morton sought answers on how best to proceed.
“I went through a lot of the research about how you could cover suicide safely,” she said, “and that was a revelation.”
And revelation is exactly what the Oregon news outlets taking part in the project, called “Breaking the Silence,” hoped for — revelation among readers about the public health crisis that suicide poses, and revelation among other journalists that there are sound, responsible ways to write about the topic.
In April, nearly three dozen news outlets produced 72 stories. And the lessons learned in the effort can inform future media partnerships on suicide, as well as other complex issues.
“Overall, I think the collaboration was a big success from a journalistic standpoint,” said Therese Bottomly, editor of The Oregonian/Oregonlive.
For many of the editors involved, the key choices they made early on about how to bring the partnership together turned out to be good ones.
The partnership grew up around problems that didn’t face a lot of controversy: the state’s suicide rates should fall, and that journalists should do more to bring attention to the problem.
All the partners asked of each other was that the stories follow evidence-based guidelines described by Lines for Life, a Portland-based nonprofit focused on suicide prevention.
The big fear for journalists in covering suicide — in particular specific cases in the community — is that the stories will inspire copycat cases and create what researchers call a contagion effect. The guidelines call for avoiding any discussion of method of suicide, and of trying to identify any one factor that might have prompted the act. Instead, organizations were to share prevention resources and stories of hope and healing.
The collaboration included the state’s biggest news agencies — The Oregonian in Portland and Oregon Public Broadcasting — but offered plenty of room for smaller outlets to join. The project was decentralized — no one editor called the shots or built a run list, which allowed news organizations to scale the stories as they wanted and pursue angles that worked best in their community.
The 72 stories in the collaboration reflected a wide range of both topics and storytelling techniques. Portland Business Journal featured a story on industry responses to high rates of suicide among construction workers. Jefferson Public Radio contributed three audio stories, one of which was about postpartum suicide, a leading cause of death for new mothers. Profiles of suicide survivors sharing their stories and offering hope were also included in the collaboration, along with stories highlighting suicide prevention programs — one of which is the Zero Suicide initiative being implemented in Grant County.
Sean Hart is editor of the Blue Mountain Eagle in Grant County, which in square miles is slightly smaller than the state of Connecticut. Hart said the freedom of each news outlet to chart its own course made a great deal of difference. The paper had already been dealing with suicide prevention on a more community-wide level, and avoiding attention to individual cases.
“We’re a really small community of about 7,000,” he said. “It’s just a very small-town feel. Even if done right, those stories would not necessarily go over all that well.”
Hart said he was surprised — and heartened — that readers reacted positively to stories the newspaper carried from other parts of the state.
“People seemed to engage with the ones that weren’t local, which was a pleasant surprise,” he said. “I was afraid that people might get upset that we were posting a bunch of outside content.”
Rachel Alexander is a staff writer for the Salem Reporter, an online news organization covering the state capital. Alexander had already been writing about suicide, both in her previous reporting job in Spokane, and locally after two recent cases at an areahigh school. For the collaboration, she reported a story about a suicide prevention program called Youth Era, which runs drop-in sites for teens to talk and connect.
At first, she said, she was skeptical that a barrage of stories on the topic hitting Oregonians all in one week would be helpful. “If I were struggling with thoughts of suicide,” she said, “I could see how all of that concentrated media would be overwhelming. But it also seemed like a cool opportunity.”
Alexander was careful to keep reminding people she interviewed how the information might be used. But she also brought a personal experience: She had struggled with thoughts of a suicide as a teenager, something she could share with people she interviewed.
“I often tell them a bit about myself, too,” she said. “You know, this is why I care about this issue. This was kind of my experience as a teenager struggling with some of the same stuff and that will often get people to open up.”
Morton’s first venture in writing about suicide took a broader view of high suicide rates in rural areas and the mountain west. Morton said she learned a lot from a suicide-reporting workshop that showcased evidence-based practices. “A real fear was taking care to not increase suicides,” she said. “The stronger hope was to prevent some.”
During the reporting, she shared with people close to her what she was working on, and to her surprise it opened up conversations about suicide, whether it involved their own thoughts about suicide, or the experiences of family members and friends.
“It reinforced the need for this project and how ready people are to connect with each other and address this issue,” Morton said. “But it’s also a lot to process emotionally, personally, and sort out when it’s time to stop reporting and starting listening as a concerned person and what to do next.”
She said training she took helped her cope, both professionally and personally.
“Most of the people had shared their stories before, and so had worked through a lot already,” she said. “Some people still had very raw pain and fresh grief or despair, and it’s impossible not to be deeply affected by their experiences.”
The Breaking the Silence team is considering another wave of stories in September, designated as Suicide Prevention Month. The project’s leaders hope this second wave of reporting can address some of the oversights of the first round of stories.
In a post-project discussion, editors from several news organizations agreed they should have done more to engage ethnic media, especially in the state’s Native American community.
At the same time, several news outlets heard from readers and viewers that there was too little attention paid to the demographic group most at risk for suicide: white males. (Follow-up stories planned for the fall will focus on older Oregonians.)
The 72 stories also largely sidestepped the issue of guns, the No. 1 cause of suicide. A longer piece by Morton initially published in The Oregonian dealt with guns to some extent. But Bottomly, The Oregonian’s editor, heard from readers about why the package of stories didn’t go into more depth about the role of firearms in suicides.
Oregon is, to a large extent, a rural state with a high rate of gun ownership. Bottomly said that early discussions touched on the possibility that news outlets outside the urban areas might have trouble writing about suicides and guns, but the issue never got a thorough discussion.
Afterward, she said, “It did raise the question in my mind, was that an opportunity to have kind of connected the dots for people a little more?”
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 authored more than 30 peer-reviewed articles in journals like 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 that brings together investigative reporting and solutions journalism. Learn more https://blogs.uoregon.edu/catalyst/