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University of Wisconsin–Madison

“Safe reporting saves lives”: reporting on suicide still has room to grow

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Audrey Thibert is a 2022-23 fellow at the Center for Journalism Ethics and an undergraduate student in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

If you or someone you know is at risk, help is available. The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline is a hotline for individuals in crisis or for those looking to help someone else. To speak with a trained listener, call 988.

When Aneri Pattani started her undergraduate degree, she didn’t know she wanted to be a health reporter. In fact, she didn’t even take a health or science course in her four years studying journalism at Northeastern University.

All that changed when she watched someone close to her struggle with mental health. She tried to help but faced myriad barriers. No one had ever talked to her about mental health issues. She wasn’t sure where to access resources, who to tell or what would be helpful to that person. And when she did try to access resources, she was met with resistance.

“Going through that experience personally made me think at a reporter level, ‘is it just me?’” Pattani said. “Are all the systems like this? Do other people have trouble navigating them? Do other people not know what to do? Because no one has ever had this conversation [with me], and so that kind of spurred a lot of reporting questions for me.”

Since then, Pattani has gone back to school to get a master’s in public health and has been reporting on many health issues, including mental health, addiction and suicide. And while Pattani says mental health coverage is improving, when it comes to covering suicide, she says there’s still room for reporters to move beyond checking boxes and into deeper consideration of what is ethical and effective coverage.

It is difficult to overstate the responsibility journalists hold when reporting on suicide. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) uses the tagline, “Safe reporting saves lives,” and Wisconsin Area Director at AFSP Gena Orlando agrees.

“Suicide isn’t contagious the same way a cold is contagious,” Orlando said. “If I’m not already at risk for suicide, somebody talking about suicide to me or asking me if I’m suicidal isn’t going to make me be suicidal.” But reading about suicide is different if you’re already in a state of hopelessness or already having thoughts of suicide, Orlando said.

If done correctly, the media can play an important role in preventing suicide by providing resources and raising awareness. If done incorrectly, coverage may end up contributing to something called the Werther effect — a phenomenon of increased suicide rates after a publicized death by suicide or suicide attempt. This is also known as suicide contagion.

The movement to report responsibly on suicide began to gain traction in the 1990s when the Centers for Disease Control released recommendations for covering suicide following a 1989 national workshop of medical experts, public health officials, researchers and news media professionals held to discuss media-related suicide contagion.

These efforts, coupled with irresponsible reporting on high-profile suicides, led to increased attention to media’s effect on suicide contagion from organizations such as the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the creation of Reporting on Suicide, a comprehensive resource of best practices for reporting on suicide. 

These new reporting methods have since been embraced by many reporters, according to Green Bay Press Gazette reporter Natalie Eilbert. Eilbert said she has replaced certain traditional journalism practices with other, more flexible methods when reporting on suicide. For example, she makes it clear to editors that her news stories on suicide require softer deadlines and may have to be dropped altogether. She also makes sure to be transparent with her sources about when a story will be published and what it will include.

Importantly, Eilbert makes sure to note in her stories that mental health has as many nuances as physical health. She said she recognizes the harm of trying to tell a single story. Instead, she makes an effort to write about people through narrative storytelling that focuses on the humanity of a person and their complexities, rather than trying to fit them into a box.

But not all reporters have embraced responsible reporting practices. In a 2020 study done by the University of Washington, 50 journalists were asked about their suicide coverage, with 35 reporting being aware of the phenomenon of suicide contagion and saying their newsrooms sought to avoid creating that harm. Some of the journalists, however, reported using conventional journalistic practices that conflict with advice from public health officials.

According to the study, traditional journalism training may be a part of why some journalists have been reluctant to adapt to guidelines for covering suicide. In journalism schools, students are taught to be objective in their reporting and to provide readers with as much relevant detail as possible. But guidelines on reporting on suicide urge journalists to be selective in the information they include in their articles. Some journalists appear uncomfortable balancing these two divergent approaches.

Pattani, who was never taught about reporting on suicide as an undergraduate, believes that journalism school is where this tension needs to be addressed. While getting her master’s degree in public health at Johns Hopkins University, Pattani and Professor Holly Wilcox created a free, online course for journalists on how to report on suicide. The course includes three modules with subjects ranging from suicide statistics to best practices. Their goal was to educate journalists and journalists in training about reporting guidelines that already exist and also help them comprehend the nuances of framing, pitching and writing a story about suicide. 

“If we could create readymade course material for students to try on their own time, for student newspapers to use as part of their training, or for professors to incorporate even parts of it into their courses, then it could be a way to let students make sure they have an awareness about the guidelines or about the risks and the rewards of reporting on suicide before they just do it on the job, which is what had happened to me,” Pattani said.

Pattani said this additional content is vital to a comprehensive journalistic education. If professors do not have time to teach the whole seven-hour course, she suggests assigning it as extra credit or using specific elements to supplement existing lessons.

Pattani also said her course may help guide professors in having tough conversations. She said many professors may feel worried about broaching the topic of suicide because they may feel unprepared to answer questions raised by students.

“It is difficult and it is scary,” Pattani said. “That’s why societally we haven’t talked about it for so long. But, as journalists, we’re often trying to raise conversations and so we can do that within our own communities as well.”

Orlando agrees that it is imperative to begin this conversation early. She said if journalism schools taught more courses on reporting on mental health issues, it would allow for responsible reporting practices to be instilled in reporters before they start their careers.

“A lot of this can be a more societal look at suicide,” Pattani said. “Would it help decrease the suicide rate if people were paid living wages or if they had job security or if they had homes that they knew weren’t going to be taken away or safe places to live? Research suggests all of those things are really important.”

This also means reflecting reality. There are many people who consider suicide and don’t die. And 93% of adults surveyed in the U.S. think suicide can be prevented. According to Christina Crouch, writing for Nieman Lab, stories of resilience may be linked to lower suicide rates.

Orlando said that these are the stories that reporters should tell – whole context stories and stories about recovery.

“Those are the stories that you want to hear. I know it sounds weird, but the stories should be about hope.”

For more industry guidance on covering suicide, please see this roundup of resources

If you or someone you know is at risk, help is available. The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline is a hotline for individuals in crisis or for those looking to help someone else. To speak with a trained listener, call 988.

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