What's your policy on covering suicides?

Question: For years, I have wondered about the following:

Suicides: In our area, when it is a homicide/suicide, it's reported by all the media. Single suicides are not unless the body is found by/in the river, lake, forest, etc., by a passer-by. If one takes their own life in the privacy of his/her own home, it is not reported. Why is that? A "privacy" act of some kind? Family's insistence? Suicide is a serious matter and should be a serious concern in all communities. What are the stats in our region and why is this such a taboo subject?

Obituaries: Why is the "cause of death" nearly never published? This is just an observation but I am curious about it too. Why am I curious? I have to read/report daily obits in my job duties at work on occasion and simply wonder about the "cause of death," especially in young people. Some report "lost his/her battle with cancer" but hardly ever do they state "motor vehicle accent," "fire," "homicide," "suicide," "still under investigation," "natural causes" (such as old age). Why is that? -- Lyn Adair, Spokane

Answer: On suicides: Most news organizations have similar policies. Suicides that occur outside the public's view are not reported. Those that occur in public, cause public disruption or involve public figures are reported. The overriding reason we don't cover "routine" suicides is consideration for the victim's family and their right to privacy. In addition, many suicide prevention experts argue that suicide stories, particularly those involving children and teens, actually generate more suicides.

A few years ago, I participated in a series of national meetings involving journalists and mental health and suicide prevention specialists. At issue was media coverage of suicides and what policies ought to apply. The arguments were incredibly emotional and heated -- not between the specialists and journalists but between the specialists. As journalists looked on, the health and suicide prevention specialists argued for and against coverage. There was never a consensus, except that most agreed coverage of teen suicide actually does increase copycat suicides and should be carefully considered. I came away from those meetings believing that our existing policies were the best given what we know and given a total lack of consensus among the specialists who should know better.

In daily obituary notices, it is up to the family to list cause of death. Some families do so, others do not. If the death is subject of news coverage -- a newsworthy auto accident, a homicide of some kind -- we report cause of death based on official records. I can't prove this, but my sense is that families have been increasingly reluctant to list cause of death in routine obituaries. It may have something to do with our growing concern for privacy. I know there remains reluctance to list causes which, rightly or wrongly, still carry some stigma. -- Steve Smith, editor

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