Monday, February 14, 2011

How should journalists cover suicide?

Yes, I’m the journalism instructor who made his students talk and write about suicide on Valentine’s Day.

Why not? An important element of love is wanting to protect our loved ones from harming themselves.

There is a journalistic taboo against covering suicide, based on the idea of contagion: reporting about suicide creates more suicides.

Last year the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority invited my students and me to attend a seminar on the topic. It turned out to be a wonderful learning experience, and the students wrote some very informative and readable stories about suicide.

The Canadian Psychiatric Association has published a list of media guidelines on reporting suicide, based on several studies.

Information that should be reported, it says, includes alternatives to suicide and warnings of suicidal behavior. These clearly are sensible suggestions.

More open to dispute and judgment, perhaps, are some of the points that the psychiatrists recommend not reporting, including details of the method of suicide and “simplistic reasons for the suicide.”

Andre Picard, a respected medical journalist at The Globe and Mail, disagrees with many of these suggestions.

This year the students had a vigorous discussion with three representatives of the health field, including one of the authors of the guidelines.

The outcome? I think we agreed to disagree – a little.

No student – no responsible journalist – wants to encourage anyone to kill himself or herself. And the guidelines are a great conversation-starter on a topic that intimidates many people.

But reasonable people can disagree about how best to present information about suicide.

The Ottawa Citizen did a commendable job, in my opinion, in a story last year about the suicide of a 17-year-old young man. But the story provides some information that the psychiatrists suggest withholding.

At the suggestion of one of our guests, Stephanie Loewen, the provincial suicide prevention co-ordinator at Manitoba Health, the students are rewriting the story to follow all the guidelines.

Tomorrow we will look at their reworked stories and discuss which versions work better for several audiences: the general readership of a mass-market newspaper, the relatives and friends of the person who killed himself, and people who are risk of death by suicide.

Now, if you are having suicidal thoughts, lots of help is available.

Please check out these links provided by the Canadian Mental Health Association.

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