How to cover suicide (via the Dart Center)

There was a great post today about covering suicide from the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma out of the Columbia Journalism School.

It’s an issue I’ve raised in classrooms and newsrooms: Suicide is a serious public health issue, yet we often look at our feet and wait for the moment to pass without a word being said.

My former ethics professor, Edward Wasserman (Knight Foundation professor of journalism ethics at Washington and Lee University) talked about the issue in one of his columns for the Miami Herald, and it’s something we debated in class as well.

Most news organizations won’t touch suicide, and if they do, only if the victim is in the national spotlight or the attempt was in public. But in doing so we marginalize the others who have fallen to the same fate. Any time a member of our community is dramatically or violently taken from us, it is news and should be ethically and sensitively reported.

The article has some good tips about reporting on suicides in a way that raises awareness without inciting copycats or re-victimizing families. Here’s a few I really liked:

  • Include a sidebar with warning signs for depression or resources for getting help.
  • Don’t say the suicide came out of nowhere or was prompted by a single incident, like losing a job – depression exhibits warning signs, and the single cause oversimplifies the victim’s struggle.
  • Inform without sensationalizing (don’t refer to “skyrocketing” suicide rates or graphic crime scenes).
  • Use facts and an expert to educate your audience about depression and suicide.

Carrie Bradshaw

Sometimes I wonder what role Carrie Bradshaw played in me becoming a journalist. Like every second woman in America, “Sex and the City” was one of my favorite shows. I own every season and will watch episodes over and over.

When I first started watching it, I had no idea I wanted to go into journalism. I was planning on being a lobbyist (laugh!) or a lawyer (hehe!). I’d always liked writing, and while I doubt I saw the show and thought, “I want to be her,” there was definitely a part of me that admired Carrie and the way she was self-sufficient and doing something she loved. I think she was a role model for many women, saying that you can be successful and single and still be happy.

This article in The Guardian I think describes some of what I’m trying to say. Candace Bushnell gave so many women a voice. She made us realize that our foibles and stories were worth telling, even when there wasn’t a happy ending.

This Huffington Post column seems to say that the Carrie Effect has pigeonholed women into writing about women’s issues and not hard reporting. As someone who recognizes the value of good investigative reporting, I tend to disagree. If anything, this widens the category of women writers, not narrows it. People will read good writers, and if it takes a sex column to find them, so be it.

I wonder more about the Carrie Effect when I look around the newsroom and see that it’s still mostly men old enough to be my father while my journalism classes scarcely had a male in them. I wonder how much longer we will be minorities.