I am told the second-year Creative Communications students have been discussing reporting on suicide lately, including such issues as whether media reporting drives up suicide rates.

Me? I don’t think the question isn’t whether or not we should report suicide, because the question isn’t useful. The question we should ask in every case is, why would we report this? And how is it news?

When tragedy strikes, news is the first salvo in a public dialogue: it is the names, the details, the charges. Who was the deceased? Why are they dead? What does this mean for the rest of us? It is a preview of a someday-trial. It is the promise of a call to change an intersection, put up a speed bump, find the witnesses. It is a hunt to humanize a headline, and let them not be remembered as a “24-year-old male.”  

But when news crosses the blurry line between public and private, you are no longer making news. You are now  producing suffering porn: gaudy, lascivious suffering porn. It is a lurid picture of loss, blown up on a television screen. It is grief amplified and broadcast to become perverse entertainment, an invitation to the uninvited to gawk around the water cooler. “It’s just so awful, Glen, isn’t it just so awful?”

With a murder, the line between news and suffering porn is fuzzy, but distinct. With suicide, that border blurs and runs. Before you take a step, stop. Check to make sure you are not trespassing. You may not inspire imitators. But you may become a pornographer of other people’s pain.

I reported on a suicide, once. The call came in right before I started my shift: someone had been hit by a train. I drove straight there, parked, struggled out of my car, paper in hand. Time slows down with stories like this. Images grow sharper.

Hi-def reality: knots of people on the corners, watching. Police cars, police officers, a man in coveralls sitting on the ground next to the engine, staring east. The tinny wail of the crossing sign. TING-TING-TING-TING-TING-TING-TING-TING.

The woman here, holding her hands to her cheeks. Maybe she saw something?

“No,” she said. “But my friend saw it.”

What did her friend see?

“She said she walked out onto the tracks, looked at the engineer, and waved,” she said, and cried. ”She waved.”

I stopped running. I sat down on the curb. I made the sign of the cross: I don’t know why. I’m not Catholic. It just seemed something to do to mark her next step on the journey. A deaf man walked up to me and motioned for my pad of paper.

“What happened?” he wrote.

“An accident,” I wrote back. “Woman hit by the train.”

He took back the pad. “Will she be alright?”

I shook my head. He put his hand over his heart. We stood there for awhile and looked at the tracks.

Because the crossing was closed for hours, I wrote a brief about it for the paper, and a brief only.  The last line was my silent protest to comments on the earlier website story. “She must have been listening to her iPod or something like that.” No. She wasn’t. I never looked for the family, though I inadvertently found them in a small city; when I did, I didn’t do anything about it. I let them alone.  

Does this mean we should only ever write briefs? No. There is a better way to handle reporting about suicide, a way that doesn’t turn human agony into titillation. With suicide, sometimes you have to let it breathe. You have to give it time. You have to give yourself time to ask the question that initially separates suffering porn and news: what does this mean for the rest of us?

A week after I sat on the tracks, Lindor Reynolds did that. She found the more important story, the human thread and the message at the heart of grief. The day I reported on it, that could not have been done. So I’m glad I didn’t take it any farther.

And if you want to talk about how to report about suicide — or anything — an instructional tale from the New Yorker. In 2003, Tad Friend penned this stunning, impeccably researched and gracefully written article on suicide and San Francisco’s iconic Golden Gate Bridge. I’ve read this story about once a month for the last seven years, just to remind myself: this is everything that reporting on anything, especially suicide, should be.

The New Yorker has the space to do that, of course, but their luxury doesn’t excuse the rest of us from doing a worse job on suicide, technically speaking. And if we’re talking about how the media should best navigate suicides, page four of that article is an absolutely necessary read to understand the nuance between cause and effect, porn and propriety:

In 1995, as No. 1,000 approached, the (media) frenzy was even greater. A local disk jockey went so far as to promise a case of Snapple to the family of the victim. That June, trying to stop the countdown fever, the California Highway Patrol halted its official count at 997. In early July, Eric Atkinson, age twenty-five, became the unofficial thousandth; he was seen jumping, but his body was never found.

- Jumpers by Tad Friend, from the New Yorker. Emphasis mine.

Eventually, the media pulled back and stopped reporting the suicides, except for extraordinary cases; the number of suicides did not drop. But it is not for prevention alone that we report suicide at our peril: it is for the preservation of our own humanity. Lose that, and you lose everything. Lose that, and you can no longer be a journalist; a reporter, maybe. But never a journalist.

But keep your caution, and take care with suicide reporting, and you can find not just platitudes to prevention, but a true narrative of the human experience. Example: Friend’s article also inspired an equally beautiful and difficult documentary, The Bridge. It was, in addition to being beautiful and difficult, also incredibly controversial.

See, to make The Bridge, the filmmakers obtained a permit from the city to continuously film the Golden Gate from a nearby park. They told city officials they were filming the bridge to “capture the powerful, spectacular intersection of monument and nature that takes place” there. City officials claimed they had been misled; in a way, though, the statement is incredibly accurate. During filming, they captured 23 suicides on video.

The filmmakers were courageous in what they showed, but they were not, in my opinion, suffering-porn peddlers. The film was controversial because it allowed the starkness of its storytelling, the unveiled truth of it, to illuminate human wounds so raw that few can look, without seeing something about ourselves we do not want to see.

But it was fantastic journalism, and most of all, it explored suicide without either extolling or exploiting it.

That’s a tricky line to walk, and one I do not believe can be done in an immediate, we-want-it-now, no-wait-more-like-five-minutes ago hard news context. It’s a line I don’t believe can even be walked in every case, even most cases, no matter how much time you have — at least, not without tripping and falling into someone else’s private grief and splattering it all over a page to be consumed, clucked over, and forgotten.

We talk a lot about teaching reporters how to look, how to examine, how to ask questions. But sometimes, the most important skill you can learn as a reporter is when to look away.


5 Responses to “Hearts, minds, and suicide headlines”

  1. I remember Rolling Stone magazine did a long, very well written story about a mass shooting spree at some shopping mall in Ohio.
    Things like that are pretty common now in the US, and it never really made many headlines…maybe for the reasons you mention here.

    But the way it was handled in that story respected the pain of that event. It didn’t make sense of the senseless, but it explained it, put it in context and did so with the luxury of time and patience.

    Shrinking budgets make that approach less and less possible in newspapers nowadays. To me, that’s why they are becoming less relevent - much more so than changing technology or the usual explanations.

    Anyway, this approach seems to be the only justifiable way to ever ‘cover’ a suicide. There has to be a reason to lift your pen in the first place, otherwise it’s obscenity.

  2. Obscenity, yes. The perfect word.

    Also, I agree with you re: the problem of becoming less relevant. Though it reminds me of a conversation last year — that maybe the future of the newspaper is a schism of sorts under the same banner. A skeleton crew can handle breaking news, at least in the depth the web needs it. Take the rest of your stable of reporters, free them from that burden, and let them really tell stories with the insight and the sensitivity that only patience can bring.

    Ideally, any story is sort of a journey. If you don’t have time to walk it with people, you can’t really tell it, I don’t think. There is so much tension right now between the demands of the ever-hungry maw and the needs of the human beings behind the headlines, that I worry the main casualty of 24-hour news and the web and social media is the human wreckage news leaves behind.

  3. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Darrin Bauming, Melissa Martin. Melissa Martin said: @dmcmonagle Inspired by your recent blog on suicide reporting. Hearts, minds, and suicide headlines: http://t.co/t3Xyy2E [...]

  4. As someone who suffers from mental illness I can say personally I do not think suicides should be extensively written about. Reported, I can see, but, because it is never possible to know what forces drove a person to commit such a thing, it cannot inherently be accurately reported.

    Many forces are at work and often a long history precede a suicide. The nature of mental illness make it such that nearly every journalist wont “get it.” On the surface it is often perceived as something minimal. A breakup, the death of a family member, ostracization etc. This is what will get reported. And in the interests of stymying the stigmas surrounding such incidents, at the least, extreme caution and extensive research should be taken into consideration.

    The Golden Gate Bridge is one of, if not the most, famous suicide site in the world. I am sure most Bay Area residents are aware of this - fact -. Reporting incidents will not drive up the rate of suicide, it just won’t. The comparisons here to say, mass shootings as Colin mentioned, is irrelevant and not at all applicable. A mass shooting and firebang exit carries it’s own stigma and a sort of badge of honour, a suicide borne of anger or extreme discontent as compared to that of desperation and helplessness.

    No doubt that the worldwide and intensive coverage of mass school shootings in the US have made way for more. And more. And more. And, not coincidentally, only in the US. It is at the point, as my American ex-girlfriend has told me, where a school shooting or gun incident will not even make the national news. As a Canadian, that is quite frankly appalling.

    Suicides in short, should never be confused with the completely different mentality of mass shootings. Ever.

    Robert Enke, a German goalkeeper who was expected to play for Germany in the World Cup 2010, also ended his life on a train track.

    And on that note, I fully support the current “Let’s Talk” campaign and am particularly happy about the inclusion of Canada’s (greatest) athlete, and Winnipegger, Clara Hughes, in that campagin.

  5. Aye — I don’t think the situations are comparable, but I think whenever news covers tragedy there is the risk of turning private pain into really ugly entertainment. So I think that’s more what Colin was getting at. I tend to think that with suicide, that there is so very rarely a way to avoid crossing into that territory, that it’s best off avoided unless you have the time, energy or resources to do something that’s going to say something extremely important. Thank you for the comment.

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