Reporting on suicide in the media: an argument against sensationalism

My freshman year of college, a student on my hall killed herself. I did not know her well, but I had brushed my teeth beside her in the mornings, laughed with her in the common room and passed her in the hallway everyday. I was thoroughly affected, and still, three years later, I have fears and flashbacks of that horrific day. I have been affected by the ripples of her suicide and it has spilled over into the work I do as a journalist. Not only does language regarding mental health and suicide carry a stigma, people simply aren’t sure how to talk and write about it.

I cannot say that my life after that day was free of other encounters dealing with suicide. I have been on the other end of a phone with different people throughout my time in college, talking them out of overdose or actions that would end their life. The topic of suicide has been prevalent in my life and while I often wonder “why me,” I know that as a journalist I cannot continue to sit idle, watching friends be affected by the way the media reports on suicide, a topic all too close for comfort in the way that it is covered.

As a journalist, my job is to report objectively. But journalists are humans as well, and sometimes insert unintentional bias. We care about our stories and sometimes write about information that does not need to be shared.

Feature stories and hard news stories differ in coverage of suicide. But never should a suicide be sensationalized or written for shock value.

This is a topic that desperately needs to be talked about, but needs to be talked about in a way that does not harm our readers. Many readers either have or know someone who has dealt with a mental illness and shock value is almost insulting if not just rude to those affected by mental illness or suicide.

This is not calling for journalists to coddle our readers, for they are able to make their own assumptions and decisions after finishing our writings, and they can handle hard stories. Our readers need the hard stories, the stories about suicides that hurt, but shape how people view others in the world. These hard stories can begin to erase the stigma surrounding mental illness and bring us into a more inclusive community.

We push for change in political correctness in terms of demographics across the board, and this needs focus too. I am not calling for people to be called out if they report stories incorrectly, for they are just not quite sure how to, and this requires teaching and learning, just like simply talking about suicide does.

But we, as journalists, need to take our readers into consideration when covering this topic.

I care about my readers, and carry a strong empathy for them, because I am one of those affected by these sometimes gruesomely reported stories.

We, as journalists, take careful time crafting our words to display the humanness of a story; how we are all connected. We tell untold stories to bring redemption, understanding and hopefully kindness to a reader and possibly change even the notion of an idea.

This topic needs to be written on, and as the Associated Press meets to create a code for reporting on suicide and as the mental health community begins to come into the light as people open up, these stories will begin to be told in a way that is constructive rather than hurtful.