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Evocative narratives about suicide can make for gripping journalism, but they can also cause harm.
N APRIL, THE NEW YORKER published a searching feature story about child suicide. It told the story of a 12-year-old boy, describing how he evaded adult supervision and other safeguards to take his own life, and conveying in graphic detail the condition of the boy’s body after his death. The piece was lauded by Nieman Storyboard as “powerful” and “riveting.”
The article is part of a string of recent coverage that has grappled with the worrisome rise in youth suicides in the U.S., seeking to answer the heartbreaking question: What convinces a child or teenager that the future holds no promise? Stories in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and other outlets have painted portraits of children in dire emotional and psychological pain who died by suicide, survived their attempts, or contemplated death.
On one hand, the publications are to be applauded for taking an unflinching look at a crisis that isn’t abating, and that appears to be worsening for non-White, non-Hispanic groups. Reporting that looks at the many risk factors for suicidal feelings and behavior, and the difficulty of accessing effective treatment, can point to system failures and potential solutions. It can help those who’ve struggled with suicidal thoughts — and their loved ones — feel less alone.
But reporting on suicide is an ethically complicated, high-stakes endeavor that, if done irresponsibly, can contribute to the spread of suicidal behavior. So it’s worth asking: Are these stories getting it right?
Leaders in the suicide prevention field have long discussed how to best report on these deaths. Many of the best practices that emerged from those discussions appear in “Recommendations for Media Reporting on Suicide,” a set of guidelines informed by researchers and journalists, which was released in 2011. The American Association of Suicidology released similar guidelines in 2019, developed with Nationwide Children’s Hospital, the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, and the E. W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University. Other guides have focused on the U.K., such as the Suicide Reporting Toolkit and the Samaritans’ Media Guidelines for Reporting Suicide.
Although the details of these reporting guides vary, they echo a shared set of general principles: Journalists should omit information about the method and location, guard against sensationalistic language and framing, refrain from glorifying or romanticizing the death, and avoid suggesting that the death served a purpose or function. The idea is that if readers who are already at high risk identify closely with the subject of a suicide story or the method of death, they may be more prone to act on suicidal thoughts themselves.