Can Journalists Stop Suicides?


Photo Credit: Getty Images | Robert D. Barnes, Digital Vision

Photo Credit: Getty Images | Robert D. Barnes, Digital Vision

By: Linley Sanders

A new study suggests that by following certain tips, journalists are able to dramatically reduce the number of suicides, specifically cluster suicides, that take place in a community. According to an article reported by Poynter and The Daily Beast, there are facts that support the idea that detailed reporting about suicides was likely to result in a chain reaction. As the study explains:

It’s not just that the suicides in a cluster were written about more often—the type of coverage was significant. The first suicide in a cluster was more likely to be printed on the front page of a newspaper and more likely to include photos, while the headlines more often contained the word ‘suicide’. The coverage was also more likely to detail the specific suicide method, and was classified as “sensational” or tabloid-like. Suicide notes were also mentioned more frequently.

Basically, newspaper reports that detailed suicides were said to cause copycat suicides more frequently than when reports were less graphic or detailed.

So, what does this mean for us as reporters? As a general rule, we should be careful to not sensationalize or play on the dramatics of a story—no matter how interesting it is. This means reporting tragedy just like every other story, not romanticizing death and pain. But should we ignore or play down suicides as a result?

That’s a thin line, and not a simple answer.  In my eyes, journalists should always seek the truth, but do no harm, as the SPJ Code of Ethics explains. Conscientious journalists should be thorough and honest in their reporting, which means not hiding any facts. However, we should also recognize that seeking and reporting information may cause harm or discomfort. As SPJ emphasizes, “pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance.”

What do you think, is it fair to put this responsibility on journalists? Part of me believes we should always bring the most detailed information to the public in order to spark conversations about how to prevent future tragedies. But this may be an example of when unfiltered reporting can cause more harm than good.

What do you believe is right? Should journalists publish everything they learn in order to best inform the public? Or is it part of our job to be aware of how we could potentially be influencing the public? Let me know in the comments below.


One response to “Can Journalists Stop Suicides?

  1. I think this is an absolutely fascinating topic and one that, quite frankly, I’d never even considered before. While I do think that it is our responsibility to report the news, I also believe that we don’t need to completely reveal all details of a crime, especially when it comes to specific details as to how someone committed suicide. I think it’s plenty informative enough to say that someone hung themselves without revealing that it was with a rope in their attic. By not publishing specific details like that, I believe we are still doing our duty to inform the public without dissecting and analyzing every part of the suicide and sensationalizing it.

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