The ethics behind reporting | Editorial

Newsroom takes a look at ethical dilemma in reporting suicides.

  • Wednesday, September 11, 2019 4:24pm
  • Opinion

As journalists we’re sometimes faced with decisions steeped in ethical dilemmas. Last month, our newsroom was left perplexed by such a dilemma.

A public suicide traumatized onlookers in Bellevue. Many onlookers. In a busy part of town.

We learned about it fairly quickly. We did our due diligence to verify the facts of what we had heard. Yes, it was a suicide.

In keeping with a policy held by many newspapers, we moved on, opting to not write a story. We don’t write news stories about suicides when we know they’re suicides.

Still, calls and emails came in from readers wondering why they hadn’t read any news about the death in the Bellevue Reporter (or other media).

It’s not an easy decision to opt for a lack of coverage. Our basic instincts as journalists dictate that we report on news when news comes up. It’s a simple instinct, but at times the situation is a little more nuanced than that.

Minor victims and suspects get different coverage and considerations than adults. Suicides are treated differently than homicides.

We took time last week to have an ethics conversation about the public death with all of our newsroom staff.

Certainly we had covered suicides or might consider covering suicides, so what would be different in those cases?

We decided trends in suicides might drive coverage. However, we’d be covering the trend of multiple suicides rather than a single death.

The death of a notable public figure often would generate news as well. In that coverage, we’d likely focus on the life of the individual rather than spend several inches on the person’s death, whatever the cause of death might have been.

In the case of the story on Page 1 today about the car prowl, the chase and standoff are the purpose of the story.

We covered a memorial at a high school for the death of a student, and we made it a point to focus on the memorial and the parent’s focus on bullying prevention.

In the past, too, we’ve covered suicides that were not determined to be suicides until a day or days after the initial news broke.

In our newsroom discussion, we also questioned what would happen if we covered the public death.

The victim would not be alive if we ran a story about the incident.

The witnesses would not see their trauma go away simply because we ran a story about the incident. In fact, it might cause them to relive the trauma.

The family’s privacy would be jeopardized and they also potentially could be made to relive the trauma through our coverage.

The public was not in danger if we didn’t cover it. There was no ongoing threat.

Then, consideration was given to the potential of igniting modeling behavior in others. It’s not guaranteed, and I’m not sure I personally believe media coverage encourages others to follow, but I’m not sure it sometimes doesn’t.

Finally, our reporters are subjected to secondary and third-hand trauma frequently. A suicide story doesn’t have to contribute to that.

There was more than one suicide in our coverage area recently. We stayed true to our policy and didn’t report on any of them, except in the case of reporting on a standoff that ended in suicide.

We hope our policy is reasonable, and we hope you stay safe and support each other in times of need or distress.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24 hours every day by phone at 1-800-273-8255. An online chat system also is available at suicidepreventionlifeline.org/chat.

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