College journalists must often contend with difficult issues, painful stories and problematic coverage decisions, and a topic like suicide touches on all three. What to say or not say, how to explain the situation or how not to offend people and other issues often leave writers feeling lost and unsure of themselves.
The recent deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain drew a great amount of coverage from media outlets throughout the world and raised the issue for journalists as to what constitutes proper treatment of suicide. Although it is never easy to cover situations like these, it can be even more difficult for student journalists who must cover the topic when it emerges on their campus. The limited amount of experience in covering these issues can make it difficult for student journalists, as can the connections between the journalists’ peers and the person who died. In some cases, the journalists themselves know the person who died, which also leads to even more difficult discussions and considerations.
To help you understand how various outlets cover it, what mental health professionals have to say and some straightforward advice on the issue, professor Jena Heath compiled an incredible set of resources that you can use to guide your efforts. In the wake of Bourdain’s death, the Poynter Institute also released some “best practices” for the coverage of this topic. They include:
- Avoid stating the means of death. Yes, we are all curious. Responsible news organizations who feel compelled to include some detail will report it low in the story, but avoid putting it in headlines, teasers, captions, or social text.
- Use neutral photos of the individual. And avoid photos that invoke melancholy. Images of a person who appears peaceful, calm and serene send a message that suicide will get you to that peaceful place.
- Use neutral headlines like, “John Doe, dead at 60.”
Also, multiple pieces Heath cited and others that discuss this topic from a journalistic point of view note that the inclusion of resources to help reduce the risk of suicide is a helpful practice.
One final tip: Just like everything else in media writing, if you aren’t sure what you are doing or you are worried you are doing something wrong, ask for help. Experts listed in these pieces, as well as veteran journalists and professors, can give you guidance and help you get a better feel for how best to do your best. Your best efforts might not make everyone who reads your story happy, and you still might face angry readers who are hurt or sad, but that’s a risk of any story that has painful elements to it. A large part of journalism is doing your best and dealing with the fallout.