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.”

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