Covering Suicide: Resources for College Journalists

Campus newsrooms need guidance, tools for covering ‘the most difficult story’

By Jena Heath
St. Edward’s University

It is a tragic fact that many college journalists will be faced with the challenge of covering the suicide of a classmate, team mate or dorm friend. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that suicide is the third leading cause of death among 15-24-year-olds, accounting for 20 percent of all deaths annually, and the second leading cause of death among college students after accidents (CDC 2012). Professional newsrooms have long had policies in place regarding suicide coverage. These policies usually dictate that suicides committed in public places should be covered as new stories.

Unfortunately, these policies and the thinking behind them have not made their way with any consistency to college newsrooms, according to a study I conducted in 2014 with a former student, Brooke Blanton, who was Editor-in-Chief of the St. Edward’s University student news site (The Most Difficult Story: Covering Suicide on College Campuses, College Media Review, Vol 52, 2014-15).

What we found on the part of both student journalists and some advisers was confusion over how to walk the line between factual news coverage and fears of being perceived as insensitive or sensational. Some of this was the result of pressure, direct and indirect, from university administrators concerned about liability and public perception. Some was confusion over how to think about and cover death, especially of a peer.

As a result, a tendency to downplay suicide coverage, or not cover suicides at all, even those committed publicly, became evident in our interviews with both student journalists and advisers. This is unfortunate, as college journalists can play a key role in helping their campus communities gain a clearer, more accurate understanding of the causes of suicide. Continue reading Covering Suicide: Resources for College Journalists