Media Must Watch its Step When Reporting on Suicide

Apr 9, 2013

Credit Photo from NPR

This spring has been a tough one in Aspen due to a succession of suicides. News of the deaths was hard to miss. Reports were carried by media outlets, including Aspen Public Radio. Aspen Public Radio's Marci Krivonen reports:

Some mental health providers say there was too much coverage. 

"I gotta tell you, we had the busiest day yesterday in the entire three years almost that the Hope Center has been in business, says Michelle Meuthing.

She's Program Director for the Aspen Hope Center, which takes calls from people in crisis. Recently, her team answered nearly a dozen high-risk calls in one 24-hour period. Most of them were about suicide.

"Was it due to the articles in the paper? I don’t know. Was it due to the fact that our phone number was published with an article in the paper, therefore our numbers went up? I don’t know."

The month of March saw three high profile suicides in the Aspen area. Aspen normally sees four suicides in an entire year. It’s particularly hard for a small town where everybody knows everybody. And, where somebody’s bound to know the person who died.

Colorado ranks eighth in the country for suicide deaths. There are 40 percent more suicides here than in the nation as a whole.

Jarrod Hindman directs Colorado’s Office of Suicide Prevention. He says Colorado’s geographic location is partly to blame.

"The top ten states for suicide death rate are in the Western U.S."

The West is full of vast open spaces where mental health services can be rare. And, the region has a “pick yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality, where it’s thought problems can be solved without help.

"When you have a brain disorder, that’s problematic. You can’t just bootstrap your way through depression or bipolar disorder, things like that," Hindman says.

As for the issue of media coverage, Hindman says some reports actually aid people in getting the help they need. While others can aren’t so helpful. His job is to reduce the number of suicides in the state. So, he gives advice to journalists on how to cover stories. Leave out details, he says, like where and how the suicide happened. And, keep it off the front page. He fears the wrong kind coverage can lead to what’s called suicide contagion.

Newsrooms, including ours, mulled over how best to cover suicides.

Rick Carroll is the editor of the Aspen Times. His newsroom’s policy for reporting suicide is one of sensitivity and caution. He says his reporters discuss the coverage before writing an article.

"These things are bounced off several people in the office because we’re always mindful of the sensitive and touching nature of suicides and it’s important that we do our best not to glorify suicides," he says.

Unlike reporting in small towns like Aspen, Dana Coffield focuses on urban news on the Front Range. She’s City Editor for the Denver Post.

"We typically don’t cover suicides unless it is the suicide of a highly public figure or if the suicide itself is highly public," she says.

She says it’s built into the DNA of the newsroom that suicides should not be covered unless they fit into one of those two categories.

Aspen Public Radio’s policy is similar to the Post’s. We see these incidents as news and we report them if they rise to a level of public significance. We then focus on facts released by local authorities.

Jarrod Hindman with Colorado’s Suicide Prevention Office wonders whether there should be any media coverage at all of suicides.

"It’s a bit of a quandary because sometimes I think it’s better to not cover suicide and sometimes it’s inevitable. The reverse of that is that the public then does not recognize how big of a public health issue suicide is, there’s less of an emphasis on suicide as an important public health issue that we need to give funding to and human resources to."

Officials at the Aspen Hope Center continue to field calls from people in crisis. Their crisis “hopeline” is 925-5858 and it’s staffed 24/7.