Celebrity deaths force media to examine suicide reporting
The Associated Press
NEW YORK — The deaths of designer Kate Spade and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain have caused media organizations to look at how they cover suicide and whether more could be done to prevent copycat killings, without neglecting the duty to report news.
Several outlets have publicized the 1-800273-8255 suicide prevention hotline — People and Entertainment Weekly magazines are using it on their covers — and operators say the hotline has received the largest volume of calls in its history following the celebrity deaths.
The Associated Press sent guidelines to its staff this week about how suicides should be reported, including new instructions on addressing suicide notes. The Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank, also publicized advice to news leaders.
Some of the guidelines being discussed contradict the natural impulses of journalists. When some younger reporters at a major national news organization urged that the suicide hotline be publicized following last week’s deaths, an editor said that it wasn’t their job because “we’re not social workers,” said Kelly McBride, media ethicist for the Poynter Institute. She wouldn’t identify the outlet.
John Daniszewski, vice president and editor at large for standards at The Associated Press, said: “Our responsibility is to keep people informed, but in a way that doesn’t lead others to consider suicide.”
Daniszewski’s message included a reminder to staff members that a 2015 entry in the AP’s influential Stylebook said not to be too specific about the methods of suicide. Reporting that both Spade and Bourdain died by hanging last week was newsworthy, but in both cases the service went too far in some versions of the stories by describing the implement used in the deaths, he said. The information was removed from subsequent versions.
Experts in suicide prevention say such details can be dangerous. There was a reported increase in the number of people who died by suicide using the same method as comedian Robin Williams after he died, McBride said.
In most cases, the mistakes made by news organizations were early in the coverage, committed by people inexperienced in such stories, she said.
“It runs counter to what we know about storytelling,” McBride said. “We teach people to get the details, and the more details the better. The problem with using these details is that there is no journalistic benefit to using them.”