Posted in Behind the News

How and when we report on suicides

, by John Daniszewski

AP policy on reporting suicides, spelled out in the AP Stylebook, is “to not go into detail on the methods used.” There has been a robust discussion in our newsrooms about what this means — how far do we go in discussing methods of suicide by celebrities? Are we depriving readers of essential information on a story if we are too opaque? 

We tend to be news purists in the AP. Our instinct is to publish all the news for our audience to absorb, use and act upon.

But reporting on suicide, like reporting on sexual abuse, is one of the areas in which we favor not saying all that we know.

Suicide prevention experts believe, based on experience and some studies, that the less said in the media about the methods of suicide, the less likelihood that a celebrity’s death will prompt vulnerable, at-risk persons from taking their lives by that same method in the days immediately after.

Last week, in writing of the suicides of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade, we reported that the deaths were by hanging. However, in some versions, we also gave out more information about the method of death than required — including what they used for the hanging. Those details were later removed.

If police, prosecutors or family members announce publicly that a suicide was by pills, hanging, gunshot or other means, let’s keep such details to a minimum and not make it the lead of our stories on the deaths.

Think how we cover most celebrity deaths. Whether someone died from cancer, heart disease or other illness, the exact cause often is an incidental element in the story.  Usually, we focus on their lives and what they accomplished and were known for.

Does this mean that we should not mention the method of suicide at all?

A woman takes a photo of the makeshift memorial for Anthony Bourdain outside the former Le Halles restaurant on Park Avenue, June 8, 2018, in New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

In many instances, it may not be necessary to say anything other than that the person died of suicide.

If we do elect to specify the means of suicide for various valid news reasons, we should keep those details to a minimum.

Naturally, readers and viewers will be curious about the way someone famous died by suicide. But when we consider the health crisis that suicide has become, we should be careful not to make things worse. 

We can make matters better by pointing out in our coverage that most people who experience suicidal thoughts recover. Reasons for suicide are complex and multi-factored, sometimes deeply entwined with depression and mental illness and sometimes resulting from what may be episodes of transitory despair and easy access to means. 

Experts argue that media can play a critical role in showing that suicide is not inevitable. It is very important in our coverage to provide information about the various suicide-prevention and mental health resources that may help prevent more deaths.

More thoughts for consideration can be found at the website www.reportingonsuicide.org.