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.

A wrongful suicide: Muhammed’s story

Today at the paper, I got a call from a Pakistani man who was visiting his daughter here in Peoria for the summer.

His name was Muhammed Anwer and I had called his daughter’s home earlier in the day asking to talk to someone for a story I was writing. He had redialed my number to tell me about his son.

He started off by saying that his son was murdered in late January 2006 in Dubai. His body was found on the roof of his home with three long stab wounds measuring 21 centimeters, 14 centimeters and 9 centimeters long. Muhammed had spoken to his son on the phone from Pakistan just two hours before his death, and it didn’t seem like anything was amiss. They had planned to speak later over the Internet.

The next day he got a call saying his son was in the hospital. Muhammed didn’t have a passport at the time, so he sent his other son to find out what had happened. When the second son arrived, he was at first told told his brother had been murdered. Later Dubai officials that said that it was not murder, it was a suicide.

A doctor later weighed in on the wounds, saying that it would have been impossible for the son to have stabbed himself, and foul play was involved. Muhammed spoke with police, who he believes are in cahoots with the government and are covering up his son’s murder. He believes it was an inside job, and someone is covering the evidence.

Years have gone by and Muhammed still does not have a clear answer of how his son’s life was brutally taken. Because his son’s death was officially ruled as a suicide, he cannot collect his life insurance. Muhammed said that his religion, Islam, forbids him from accepted a settlement, yet he’s still angry that the money was simply taken by the American insurance company for a suicide that was not committed.

“There’s so many people coming to Dubai to open the factories,” Muhammed said. “They’re investing a lot of money, and people don’t know the true condition of the country.”

Muhammed hoped that I would write something to let people know about what is really going on. He hopes that before traveling to Dubai, heralded as a premier vacation destination, people will look more closely into where they are traveling, that they will first learn more about the country so as not to suffer in the same way his family has.