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Debating the Media's Responsibility When Covering Suicides

By Ben L. Kaufman · March 18th, 2009 · On Second Thought
Local legend has it that a crusty old news photographer once shouted at a reluctant suicide downtown, “Jump, you sonuvabitch, the light’s getting bad.”

More typically, editors avoid news and images of local suicides, reflecting our awareness of historic religious stigma and communal sense of shame that can burden survivors. Exceptions generally involve suicides where lots of people see the act and/or body, as when someone jumps from a downtown building or hangs himself in a school gym.

Few beliefs are more strongly held than those dealing with death. Among them are traditions that say that life belongs to God. Sanctions — yes, we punish the dead — can include denial of burial in consecrated ground, something suicides long had in common with heretics and nonbelievers.

These taboos continue to affect our discussion of suicide as a way to end an intolerable life or unbearable physical or emotional pain. This is most intense when a young person commits suicide.

In recent weeks, The Enquirer has abandoned deference when dealing with suicide, choosing instead in-your-face reporting of local teens who kill themselves. It’s treating teen suicides as a community loss or public mental health problem, not a shame to be ignored or hidden.

On March 1, its Sunday Forum explored teen suicide. More recently, the paper reported the frantic, unsuccessful effort to stop a local youth who announced his intention to kill himself on MySpace. Before that, a teenager killed herself, apparently despairing over cyber-bullying.

This kind of coverage all is new.

And it provoked Jason Haap on his blog, cincinnatibeacon.com. Haap, a veteran high school teacher, fears that frightened, unhappy or depressed youngsters will embrace brief celebrity and kill themselves in copycat suicides. He’s asking The Enquirer to rethink its reporting of all suicides, drawing on a World Heath Organization (WHO) advisory on the media and suicide.

In a sense, Haap is suggesting that the news media pulls the trigger on teen despair. WHO and my gut say it might happen.

My head says we can’t flinch from reporting something because it might harm the most susceptible among us. Damn few teenagers read The Enquirer. Yes, it’s also on the Web, but YouTube and nude pictures of classmates are likelier destinations.

I also opt for continuing candid coverage when the copycat risk is weighed against thousands of readers who can gain an awareness of teen suicide and the need to intervene. This is the Utilitarian ethic, seeking the greatest good for the greatest number.

Coincidental with growing news media candor is the developing ethic which says, roughly, “don’t provide a suicide instruction manual.” If someone helps Mom die, it’s enough to say she swallowed a lethal cocktail without providing the recipe. The same is true of ways people kill themselves with firearms, nooses, defenestration, pills or auto exhaust.

Haap suggests The Enquirer has gone too far on this, too. I’m not sure it matters. Given the ubiquity of Internet coverage of celebrity/Rock star suicides and Web sites telling people how to kill themselves, even if The Enquirer provides more how-to information than necessary it approaches “no foul, no harm.” Kids don’t turn to The Enquirer for that kind of information.

I’ve covered suicides, written and edited obits of suicides and talked one person out of killing himself that day. I promised to assist my parents’ suicides to the extent allowed by law in their state.

For all of that, I don’t pooh-pooh Haap’s concern about teen copycats, given the fragility of some youngsters and angst that seems to sometimes overwhelm them.

As the WHO guidelines say, experience shows the need to minimize copycat deaths. Imitation is always a probability when some dramatic act gains widespread news coverage.

Copycats were a problem in 1982 after a killer poisoned Tylenol in Chicago stores. It was a helluva story. I was teaching Intro to Mass Media at the University of Cincinnati, and we tracked the story every time we met.

Tylenol’s manufacturer, Johnson & Johnson, wrote the book on smart response to a problem it didn’t cause: immediate national recall, highly advertised toll-free telephone bank and extraordinarily open communication with the news media.

The company did everything but scream, “Write about this, dammit!”

We did. Copycat poisoning and threats kept pace with national attention. It rose with the immediate, unavoidable coverage and fell as the Chicago killer quit poisoning Tylenol and news media reduced copycat stories to briefs. Then nothing.

Curmudgeon Notes

• A recent Enquirer reminded me of a story I wrote there years ago. It went something like, “Lars Bernstein, 24, and his twin, Olaf, were indicted…” A confused editor walked over and asked, “Ben, how old is the other twin?” Then-colleague Kevin O’Hanlon swears that question will be the title of his expose of American journalism. A few days ago, Page 1 Enquirer story included this gem, “The twin doctors, both 53 years old…” Same birthday? Don’t ask.

• The Sunday Enquirer March 15 was strong. Even if you’ve exhausted your outrage over Esme Kenney’s murder and opportunistic reactions by ineffective, posturing public officials, read the page 1 story about Anthony Kirkland for the pleasure — yes, pleasure — of fine storytelling by veteran reporters Dan Horn and Eileen Kelley. It would be easy to break away at any point except that Horn and Kelley let facts and others’ voices draw you in. Much of what they tell us comes from public records.

Coincidentally, Sunday’s Forum section was dedicated to open records laws and protections for reporters who promise anonymity to sources. Those laws open records to all of us, not just journalists, and if experience of almost 50 years tells me anything it’s that officials hide records to avoid embarrassment rather than any higher motive.

Finally, Publisher Margaret Buchanan reports new data to explain why The Enquirer is not a dying paper. I hope she sends a copy to corporate, where stock has tanked, execs are richly compensated and companywide firings are ordered. If The Enquirer and its related media are making money, leave it here and apply the lessons at the other 84 Gannett dailies.

• I fear for the Republic if recent audience research is valid. Little suggests a bright future for a polity whose success requires informed voters. The nonpartisan Pew Research Center for the People & The Press looked into this with a poll on March 6-9. I quote: “Fewer than half of Americans (43 percent) say that losing their local newspaper would hurt civic life in their community ‘a lot.’ Even fewer (33 percent) say they would personally miss reading the local newspaper a lot if it were no longer available.”

However, “More than half of regular newspaper readers (56 percent) say that if the local newspaper they read most often no longer published — either in print or online — it would hurt the civic life of the community a lot; an almost identical percentage (55 percent) says they would personally miss reading the paper a lot if it were no longer available.”

Let me butt in here. I believe the regular readers, but the others probably are giving answers they believe will make them seem smarter. I doubt there is any community in America where 55 percent read the paper, so why would they care if it’s no longer available? We wouldn’t be in deep shit if 55 percent bought and read their local dailies.

Pew then asked where respondents get their local news: “More people say they get that news from local television stations than any other source. About two-thirds (68 percent) say they regularly get local news from television reports or television station Web sites, 48 percent say they regularly get news from local newspapers in print or online, 34 percent say they get local news regularly from radio and 31 percent say they get their local news, more generally, from the internet.”

In short, ignorance of local affairs is the only bliss in their otherwise solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short lives.

• Pew also confirmed what I infer from my undergraduate journalism classes: “27 percent of Generation Y — those born in 1977 or later — read a newspaper the previous day. That compares with 55 percent of those in the Silent or Greatest Generations, born prior to 1946. … Less than a quarter of those younger than age 40 (23 percent) say they would miss the local newspaper they read most often a lot if it were to go out of business or shut down. That compares with 33 percent of those ages 40 to 64 and 55 percent of those age 65 and older. However, many more of those younger than 40 (41 percent) say the shutdown of their local newspaper would hurt the civic life in their community a lot. About the same proportion of those ages 40 to 64 (42 percent) express that view, as do 51 percent of those 65 and older.”

• Pew found Democrats and independents more likely to say their communities would be hurt by the loss of the local newspaper than are Republicans. About half of Democrats (49 percent) and 47 percent of independents say civic life would be hurt “a lot” if the newspaper shut down, compared with 33 percent of Republicans. That’s hardly surprising. Why would they want facts when Rush and Fox that will interpret the news for them without the additional burden of underlying information?

• Progressives relearned grassroots campaigning from the Religious Right. Republicans relearned the art of organizing a firing squad (first, form a circle) from Democrats. The news media and blogs are full of the latest GOP circling of the faithful.

It began when Michael Steele, who bested Cincinnati’s Ken Blackwell for chairmanship of the Republican National Committee, told CNN, “Rush Limbaugh is an entertainer. Rush Limbaugh, his whole thing is entertainment. Yes, it’s incendiary, yes, it’s ugly.” El Rushbo lacks the thick skin of many of his targets. Handed new cause for outrage, he responded, “I would be embarrassed to say that I’m in charge of the Republican Party in the sad-sack state that it’s in.” Limbaugh said he “might get out the hari-kari knife” if he had Steele’s job, saying Steele is “gutless” and afraid to challenge President Obama.

Chastised and fearful of Rush’s reputed power as the real, if unelected, GOP leader, Steele groveled. “I have enormous respect for Rush Limbaugh,” he told politico.com. “I was maybe a little bit inarticulate. … There was no attempt on my part to diminish his voice or his leadership.”

Rush, like Fox News and Cincinnati’s Bill Cunningham, speak to and for Real Republicans. Everyone else is playing at face time on the news media.

Then it got worse. Steele conceded that he was, in effect, pro-choice on abortion. Wingnuts not already frothing imitated Norse berserkers. Where is Blackwell when the Religious Right needs him to lead the GOP with Rush, the biblical yoking of an ox and and an ass?

Meanwhile, the nonpartisan Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism said the original Rush vs. Steele squabble was the second most reported story of the first week of March. Only the economic crisis consumed more newsprint.

• Her dying barely ripples the American news media, but British Z-list celebrity Jade (Goody) is making the most of her brief fame. A participant in a seamy reality show, she learned she had fatal cancer on live TV.

With months to live, this twentysomething decided to marry her boyfriend and sell exclusive story/photo rights to her wedding to a celebrity magazine. Jade says the money will provide for her two sons. The government waived nighttime home arrest restrictions so her husband could spend their wedding night with her in hospital. He was convicted of hitting a teenager with a golf club.

Each medical treatment — and a nut case’s intrusion into her hospital room — makes news. So do photos of her in her hospital bed or going home to die. So do her baptism and that of her sons in the hospital. Whether she’s selling exclusive rights to her death is unclear.

• For generations, the New York Times copy desk was the Gold Standard for editing and headline writing. Given missteps in a recent Times, that might not be true today.

The headline on a story about the World War I Muslim Turkish deportation and/or massacre of Christians Armenians refers to “nearly a million genocide victims.” However, the story says its subject refused to call it “genocide” or to interpret before-and-after population changes in 1916 and 1917 censuses as proof of genocide. The unacceptedly editorialized headline misrepresents the story and reflects the common Western view that Turks are guilty of genocide.

Deeper in that same section, the copy desk commits an OMG! The Times uses the same headline on the continuation of a story (the “jump”) as on its start. In this case, the first grammatically says, “Surfers deal blow to a Florida…” The jump says “Surfer’s deal blow…” Aaaaaaaaaargh! That’s a mistake only a human can make. Both look correct to a computer spell checker.

My bet? A young copy editor. Using apostrophe’s to make plural’s is so common among todays university student’s (who dont use apostrophe’s when required by a possessive or contraction) that well probably surrender with a whimpered, “Whatever….”

CONTACT BEN L. KAUFMAN: letters@citybeat.com



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