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.
Many excellent resources are available to help student journalists and advisers faced with the difficult challenge of covering suicide. What follows is a list of these resources, including organizations, articles and even a documentary, that can help college journalists better understand and cover mental health issues and suicide. This list, by no means comprehensive, is offered as a tool to spark conversation in student newsrooms about this important issue.
- American Foundation for Suicide Prevention
- American Association of Suicidology
- Annenberg Public Policy Center
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
- Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism
- The Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma https://dartcenter.org/topic/suicide
- NAMI: National Alliance on Mental Illness
- National Institute of Mental Health
- The New York Times
- The New Yorker
- Obit. Life on deadline
- The Poynter Institute
- Reporting on Suicide, a consortium of experts in suicide prevention. The recommendations are based on more than 50 international studies on suicide contagion
- Suicide Prevention Resource Center
- Team Up, Tools for Entertainment and Media, a consortium of mental health experts, entertainment industry professionals and journalists to encourage deeper reporting and more accurate depictions of people living with mental illness.
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to include an additional link from The New Yorker.
Jena Heath, Associate Professor of Journalism & Digital Media, joined the faculty at St. Edward’s University in 2008. She teaches Introduction to Journalism, Online Journalism, Advanced Newswriting and Media Standards & Practices, among other courses. She also coordinates the journalism program and serves as Faculty Adviser to Hilltop Views, the student newspaper and website. Before becoming a journalism editor, Heath spent nearly two decades in newsrooms as a reporter and editor. She covered cops, courts, local and state government and the White House. She holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Smith College and a master’s degree in journalism from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.