Journalism ethics of reporting suicides

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The jubilation of a football victory over arch rival Michigan and a looming Big Ten championship had barely set in for this year’s highly ranked Ohio State Buckeyes when the team and university community received the tragic news that a senior player had taken his own life.

missing-osu-player-1201-art0-glhvcsdk-1karageorge-mugDefensive lineman Kosta Karageorge had gone missing on Wednesday, the eve of the Thanksgiving holiday and a few days before the season’s final home game against the Wolverines. His mother had reported her concerns to police. The family’s worst fears were realized on Sunday when Karageorge’s body was found off campus, death by an apparent gunshot wound.According to information released by the family prior to his discovery, the 22-year-old, who also wrestled for the Buckeyes, had suffered a number of concussions during his football playing days, one as recently as last month. His mother said he had bouts of confusion. The effects were reportedly getting worse. He ended a text message to his mother saying, “I am sorry if I am an embarrassment . . .”

The decision to report on suicides has always been a tough ethical dilemma for journalists. The death of Karageorge is another in a continuing line of self-inflicted deaths that call on the media to act responsibility with their coverage. But the line of responsibility isn’t etched in stone. It’s not as easy as it seems; in my 35 years as a journalist the policy has been all over the place, usually created by editors, subject to change.

The rule of thumb seems to be: If the person is a private individual (private in the legal sense, as someone who hasn’t sought public attention) and the suicide takes place in his or her private residence, then you simply don’t report it.

That changes if a private person commits suicide in a public way, such as jumping off a bridge in the center of the city.

That changes again if the person is a public figure who dies in their home, or in a public venue. It can change also if the public person isn’t public any longer, reverting to a private life. It gets dicey. The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma has issued guidelines to help the media.

In some cultures, such as in South Korea, where honor and dignity are prized, it’s oddly common for corrupt and disgraced leaders to visit a mountain range and throw themselves off as a public statement of remorse. The media reports it. In Japan, they have dubbed one area at the foot of Mt. Fuji the Suicide Forest, after the large number of people (about 100 each year) who travel there for the final act.

This year, the Society of Professional Journalists Ethics Committee recommended language in its new code that asked journalists to “exercise caution when dealing with suicides.” That’s not powerful language that would exhort journalists to make radical changes in the way suicides are managed. It wasn’t intended to set a baseline, according to longtime ethics committee member and proponent Fred Brown, but to simply suggest that more deliberation and caution might be exercised before reverting to internal polices that often change. Besides, an entire new generation of journalists hasn’t been subjected to the litmus tests of suicide reporting.

The committee agreed after much discussion, but convention delegates — contending the language didn’t belong — removed it. As a result the code is missing that cautionary language. They were wrong, because we need to look no further than the death of comedian and actor Robin Williams to see how badly the media can handle suicides.

There is nothing wrong with suggesting that the press cautiously deliberate. The first order might be to review the policies governing reporting on suicides.

  • Is the policy based strictly on legal parameters or is moral reasoning a part of it? A legal right to report isn’t a substitute for a moral duty not to.
  • Does the public right to know overreach the privacy and consideration afforded the family?
  • Are there mitigating circumstances that would force you to alter your policy? In the case of Karageorge, the family had gone public with his disappearance and was asking the community for help finding him. They also revealed his bouts of confusion from concussions. They forced the issue into the public sphere.
  • But, in doing so, does that open his death up to extensive reporting? Has the family forfeited the right to any privacy in this story now? Will it be necessary to report autopsy results? Does his background, personal life get opened?

SPJ’s Code of Ethics tells journalists that they have an obligation to report the truth. They also have an obligation in minimizing the harm that’s done in the pursuit of that truth. When it comes to suicides, a careful and deliberate moral reasoning needs to take place aside from the First Amendment right to report.

Families don’t care about your rights when they are grieving. That’s why compassionate and responsible journalism is necessary and why cautious deliberation is needed.









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