1. “We don’t routinely report on suicides”

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After it became clear that the police officer had taken his own life, the first hurdle that The Spectator’s editors and reporters faced was their own publication’s policy on suicide reporting.

In 2005, many newspapers followed a long-standing blanket policy that cautioned reporters against covering incidents of suicide. The Spectator was among them. Even today, the newspaper’s policy on suicide reporting states that “The Spectator generally does not cover suicide unless there is a public need to know” [1]. Suicide, sadly ubiquitous, is not usually considered newsworthy, nor tasteful to publicize.

At the most basic level, this is simply a matter of practicality. In 2005 alone, there were more than 230,000 deaths in Canada — 3,743 of which were suicides [2]. If the media reported on every single sudden death that occurred throughout the year, the sheer volume of the stories would be overwhelming.

Of course, the policy was also influenced by other, deeper concerns. The Spectator’s code of ethics maintains that suicide is a uniquely sensitive issue. Media coverage of suicide is believed to have a strong impact on readers — and, at the time, many worried that it would do more harm than good.

Much of that concern was related to the notion of “suicide contagion.” At the time, there was a widespread belief that media coverage of suicide could prompt other vulnerable individuals to follow suit. In its 2009 paper “Media Guidelines for Reporting Suicide,” the Canadian Psychiatric Association emphasizes the risk of “copycat” suicides — particularly among youth and young adults under 24 years of age [3]. The CPA’s guidelines include many examples of particular words and phrases that might inadvertently encourage “copycat” suicides.

Watch Jim Poling describe the guidelines for responsible reporting on suicide in 2005:

While providing a commonly cited argument against suicide coverage, passing years have seen the CPA’s guidelines increasingly questioned. As Liam Casey noted in his 2011 feature on suicide for the Ryerson Review of Journalism, the actual presence of suicide contagion is nearly impossible to measure — particularly in the age of social media, which has dramatically changed the way that people receive and transmit news [4].

Other experts believe media coverage is an essential means of breaking down the stigma around suicide and mental health. The Spectator’s ethics code acknowledges that covering suicide can be a means of “shedding light on an issue considered too sensitive to discuss” [5]. From this perspective, reporting on suicide offers an opportunity to provide distressed individuals with valuable information and support — and can actually play a key role in suicide prevention.

Listen to Dana Robbins talk about mental health experts’ conflicting attitudes around suicide reporting, even in 2014:

At the time of this particular police officer’s death, many newsrooms were in the process of developing a more nuanced attitude toward media coverage of suicide. Generally speaking, however, reporters at The Spectator were encouraged to tread carefully when deciding whether to cover a particular case — and avoid reporting unless there was an extremely compelling reason to do so.

Still, the lack of clarity around “best practices” left some reporters and editors in The Spectator’s newsroom uncomfortable with the story. Did the particular circumstances of this police officer’s death merit a break from the typical “don’t report” approach?

Next: Suicide and the public interest

 


[1] Spectator Staff. The Hamilton Spectator Code of Ethics. 2006. Print. 13 Dec. 2014.

[2] Statistics Canada. Deaths and mortality rate, by selected grouped causes, age group and sex, Canada annual. CANSIM Table 102-0551. Ottawa: Statistics Canada, 28 Jan. 2014. Web. 14 Dec. 2014

[3] Nepon, Josh et al. Media Guidelines for Reporting Suicide. Canadian Psychiatric Association. Ottawa: Canadian Psychiatric Association, 2009. PDF file.

[4] Casey, Liam. “Suicide Notes.Ryerson Review of Journalism 1 Dec. 2011. Print.

[5] Spectator Staff. The Hamilton Spectator Code of Ethics. 2006. Print. 13 Dec. 2014.

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