Suicide coverage guidelines

Suicide victims

In deciding whether to cover and name suicide victims, we should take each case on its own merits. It’s not our practice to report a suicide unless the incident occurs in a public place and attracts enough public attention to warrant a story. We generally would not report on a suicide in a house or other private place, unless the victim is a prominent person.

We do report on suicides in public if we think a large number of folks may have wondered what happened. But, we generally wouldn’t name the victim unless there was a compelling reason.

We generally don’t speculate when it’s not clear at first whether a death was a suicide. In newsworthy stories, we might say if police are investigating whether the death was an accident, homicide or suicide – if that seems relevant.

We generally would treat cases, like a suicide victim who jumps from a freeway overpass or the Aurora Bridge, on a case-by-case basis. Would a large number of folks wonder what happened? If so, we’d consider covering.

As for the issue of whether to name a driver who hits someone who jumped or walked onto the freeway, we generally would not name the driver if police tell us the driver was not at fault – that there’s no way the driver could have avoided the accident.

 

We might consider naming a suicide victim if:

The suicide occurred in the open and caused a major disruption to public life. For example, we might consider naming a suicide victim if the incident occurred on a busy day near Safeco Field in Seattle and created a huge commotion.

Factors such as time of day, traffic tie-ups, public nature (urban vs. quiet area), provide compelling reasons.

The act was a protest of some kind or there was a related crime.

There were multiple suicides.

There were exceptional circumstances, such that police handling or public policy become an issue in the case.

 

Examples

We reported the death of a nurse who killed herself six months after she accidentally gave a fatal overdose to an infant at Children’s hospital. The child’s death had been in the news. The woman had lost her job and was struggling to find work, discouraged that she’d never again work as a nurse.

The original headline stated flatly that the nurse committed suicide. It seemed a bit sensational in big type on B1. We reworked it and came up with this version to add context: Nurse’s suicide follows tragedy. We ran the “Crisis help” phone numbers and link listed below.

When a 14-year-old boy jumped from an I-5 overpass onto the freeway, we reported that news to warn readers about the traffic tie-up. Police weren’t sure at first if the teen fell or jumped. Later, when the incident was called a suicide, we decided not to name the boy. There was nothing to be gained by identifying him.

We didn’t name a man who stepped in front of a train at Carkeek Park, because there wasn’t a big impact on the public and that section of the track is not in a dense urban setting. But, we reported the suicide because there were a lot of people in the area who may have wondered what was going on.

 

Obituaries

When writing an obit on someone who committed suicide, the reporter should ask family members if they’re concerned about our mentioning the cause of death. If there’s no family, we should ask friends or sources who are interviewed if there’s any reason we shouldn’t mention the suicide. We should strongly consider the wishes of family and friends. If the individual was prominent or if the suicide occurred in public and caused a huge disruption, we would mention the manner of death.

If possible, explain whether the person suffered from a mental illness and had — or hadn’t — sought treatment.

 

Here are some issues to consider from the Media Recommendations Expert Task Force, consisting of members of the media and suicide-prevention organizations.

Suicide is a delicate issue, and we should be sensitive to the privacy of grieving family and friends who are dealing with unanswered questions

Suicide is rarely, if ever, an inexplicable act by an otherwise healthy person. Many people are undiagnosed and should not be assumed to have no underlying mental or substance-abuse issue.

Mental-health and substance-abuse issues are the biggest factors in suicide – not divorce, job loss, bad grades and other hardships sometimes cited by family, police and other people who are not mental-health experts. Consider quoting a mental-health or suicide expert on causes.

Avoid reporting that may give the impression of memorializing the victim. Such descriptions can be viewed as romantic, idealistic and heroic portrayals of suicide.

Make sure these details are relevant and not sensational:

Images of funerals and gravesites

Detailed descriptions of the suicide method and location

The words “epidemic” and “skyrocketing” are often inaccurate. Consider words like “rise” and “higher” for less dramatic effect after checking statistics at the Centers for Disease Control or a local health department.

“Failed” and “successful” are inappropriate terms as they may appear to characterize suicide as an achievement. Instead, we can refer to a “suicide” or “suicide attempt” while including the person’s condition.

Big headlines and prominent placement may sensationalize the event. Editors should make sure presentation and news play are appropriate for the importance of the story.

We should talk about whether it’s relevant to use “suicide” or “overdose” in the headline. The use of the words depends on the news value of the story. For example, we would use “suicide” in a headline if a judge killed himself in a courtroom.

 

Links and phone numbers:

Consider including resources and information about suicide prevention, warning signs, hotlines and effective treatments for mental disorders and addiction. For example:

Crisis Help

Free, confidential help is available to anyone thinking about suicide:

In King County, call 206-461-3222 (TTY/TDD 206-461-3219)

Outside King County, call 800-273-8255

For information about suicide prevention and warning signs:

www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org

 

Online threats

There have been at least two separate suicide threats in comment threads on seattletimes.com. Readers will likely alert us to these situations. We should leave the comment as is.

Evaluate each case individually, but at the very least, post the information below in the same thread:

Free, confidential help is available to anyone thinking about suicide:

In King County, call 206-461-3222 (TTY/TDD 206-461-3219).

Outside King County, call 800-273-TALK (8255).

 

Online commenting

In general, we don’t allow reader comments on stories involving suicides. However, if there’s commenting on a story that contains a minor reference to suicide, our guidelines call for the removal of cruel and insensitive posts regarding a victim of suicide and violent crime.

 

Real-time online reporting

Our guidelines also apply to posting news in real-time online, on Twitter, for example.

We generally don’t report suicides because of privacy and sensitivity concerns for the family and friends of the victim.

We also wouldn’t report that someone was threatening to jump from a downtown building, bridge or overpass. We avoid sensational reporting that could attract onlookers to a sensitive police scene where negotiators may be trying to safely resolve a crisis.

Posting this type of news also tends to create a forum for insensitive and cruel comments about suicide.

However, if someone commits suicide — or threatens to — in a public place, resulting in shut-downs of busy thoroughfares, we would likely report that police are responding to an incident in the area to alert readers to possible traffic problems.

 

Review photos on a case-by-case basis

In 2010, we didn’t run a photo of a rape victim who ran out of the courtroom as she was testifying and threatened to jump. The building and streets were closed, and downtown Seattle traffic was tied up for hours. The woman was not recognizable, but we thought the picture didn’t add anything to the story.

In 2001, we used a picture of a woman sitting on the edge of the Ship Canal bridge. She’d been threatening to jump for hours, and there was a huge tie-up on I-5. The photo was taken from a distance so the woman was not identifiable. She later jumped and was in critical condition.

In 1994 when Kurt Cobain killed himself, we said a suicide note and shotgun were found with the body. We also used a photo we shot at Cobain’s home in which the body and feet were partially visible. There was a lot of attention on this story because of the huge public interest.