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Covering suicides

Discussion in 'Journalism topics only' started by Dick Whitman, May 2, 2012.

  1. Dick Whitman

    Dick Whitman Well-Known Member

    Tangent on the Seau thread got shut down, which is cool, but it's a good J-topic.

    Have you ever covered one? How do you go about it? Does the actual act have to be public? Does the person have to be famous or a public figure, at least locally? Do you call family members? Try to talk to an intermediary first? I'm not big on that, because I think people will protect people who don't even need or want to be protected - I think of all the times a secretary has told me that a coach or executive doesn't want to be interviewed, and then when I go to the guy directly, he fills my notebook. A lot of people actually like to talk about their friend or family member who has died.

  2. imjustagirl

    imjustagirl Active Member

    I think if I didn't want a conversation to get sidetracked I wouldn't say "I remember calling a high school coach over and over one night trying to reach him after his wife committed suicide."

    Then I sure wouldn't backtrack by saying:

  3. Dick Whitman

    Dick Whitman Well-Known Member

    Yeah, this post was constructive.
  4. Moderator1

    Moderator1 Moderator Staff Member

    We did a big project on it some years back, a number of teen-age boys shot themselves. Six in three weeks? Something like that. One was a big-deal area prep QB so I ended up on the lead. Granted, it was a couple of weeks after the actual suicide. But I called every family and every one of them wanted to talk. And talk. And talk. And talk.

    Not sure it would have been easy calling the next day so I have no frame of reference there.
  5. Zeke12

    Zeke12 Guest

    Every place I have ever worked had that policy.
  6. LongTimeListener

    LongTimeListener Well-Known Member

    Profound statement here, but ... circumstances are everything. We have had a number of suicides here at one train crossing in Palo Alto, to the point that several of them were considered copycat/teens romanticizing the idea. That became a public safety issue in addition to a matter of public curiosity, and IIRC a few of the parents were pretty happy to talk. But without a component of either public safety, a public figure or the event happening in a public place so everybody already knew about it, I wouldn't. Certainly not that day.

    In reference to the other thread with the 12-year-old, I believe I would have quit on the spot before making that phone call.
  7. Matt Stephens

    Matt Stephens Well-Known Member

    You also need to always be sure it was legally declared a suicide by the coroner's office. I wrote a gamer this winter and focused on a kid who had an amazing game out of nowhere. The winning team with the focus player was out of our coverage area, so the news really hadn't been anything up here.

    I talked to him after the game and he told me he dedicated his performance to his best friend who died the week prior. I asked him what happened, and he told me that the friend killed himself. I used the term "suicide" in the story because that's what his best friend told me that happened (and, honestly, it sounded a lot more deep/touching with this player's performance as opposed to "died"), but the copy desk switched it for legal purposes since the official report from the coroner's office hadn't been released.
  8. ColdCat

    ColdCat Well-Known Member

    the rule of thumb at all the places I worked was that if you would report the person's death if it were a heartattack, you report it if it's a suicide. Junior Seau takes his life- it's newsworthy, a 12 year old who in life was not a noteworthy person- not newsworthy.
    When I worked TV news there were many times I got sent out to a scene where the coroners office was called out and in Jacksonville, the JSO sends a homicide detective to any reported death. Many times I would get out of the car and a uniformed officer would walk up to me and say "suicide" and I would just get back in the car and leave.
  9. Beef03

    Beef03 Active Member

    Suicides are something I will always have great difficulty covering, not that it's easy for anyone. I understand the public place or figure policy, I'm not even against it. But it's more of a personal thing. I had a sister who killed herself when she was 15 and I was 13 and it was an issue I dealt with a lot growing up and since. It's just not an alley I can go down where I think I could do a proper job of reporting it. I've covered other deaths but I hit barrier when it comes to suicides.
  10. Liut

    Liut Active Member

    Me too. Teammates and former coaches wanted to talk about the deceased as a way of honoring them. I knew the sources well enough it was fairly easy to track them down. Thought never came to me to phone up mom and dad.

    In another instance, a high school kid had a career game the week of his father's suicide. He asked me not to state the exact cause of death. I agreed and the kid proceeded to give me some poignant quotes.

    Respect and tact have helped me during these unpleasant assignments.
  11. Drip

    Drip Active Member

    Dick, from an editorial standpoint, I've been at publications that don't like to publicize suicides of "ordinary citizen." People like to copy cat incident such as a bomb hoax.
    However, if the person who has committed suicide is a person of prominence, it is something that should be covered professionally, not glorified.
  12. Dick Whitman

    Dick Whitman Well-Known Member

    What is interesting is that the football coach I talked to really wanted to do a story on his wife's suicide, and kept it in mind over the course of a couple years that we were in touch. But he decided not to because he didn't want his young son to find out about it from Google some day instead of from him.

    He wouldn't go on record - maybe he might have eventually - but he told me every single detail about her death, her depression, etc., etc. He was really torn between protecting his son from an inadvertent find and becoming a spokesman - even for a day - for suicide prevention.
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