Thursday, July 29, 2004

Editorial: Covering suicide

Published in the Current

When I spoke to Tim Thompson, father of Timothy L. Thompson II, Tuesday morning, he expressed his hope that "something good" comes of his son's suicide. Several times, he urged me to "be sensitive," saying the community needs togetherness and healing. He also told me that he did not want the issue of suicide "swept under the rug."

In my Page 1 article, I have tried to respond to the community's very public grief, and to provide the assistance a newspaper can: information, context and resources.

The numbers are chilling: 1 in 11 Maine high school students attempt suicide each year. And 1 in 5 of them have seriously considered it. Also, according to Ingraham, 58,000 Mainers call the crisis hotline at 774-HELP every year.

That demonstrates a powerful need. Parents and teachers of young people need to watch for signs of depression and suicidal leanings in every child. Friends need to keep a close watch on each other. Mental-health workers and agencies need to get anti-suicide programs deeper into our schools. A crisis hotline, though an important start, is not enough.

Suicide is something that society at large has typically not addressed directly. Newspapers, as a part of and mirror of society, have followed that lead. But this issue is important, and should not be ignored.

It is heartening that members of the Cape Elizabeth community are joining together to grieve. That may turn, in time, into action.

The decision to cover - and how to cover - Thompson's suicide has been the most difficult of my 10-year career in community journalism.

Initially, my reaction was not to cover it at all, to let the family and friends grieve in private. But when a community grieves, we at the newspaper grieve with you. One way we do that is by telling stories and sharing information.

During my conversations with media ethicists, friends, colleagues, mentors and others - including members of the Thompson family, other Cape residents and mental-health experts - I came to the conclusion that the issue, and this incident as an example of it, is too important to turn our backs on.

Suicide is an important issue in our society, but it is a topic newspapers have traditionally handled poorly.

While older studies created concern that media coverage could lead to additional suicides, more recent studies have shown sensitive and educational news coverage can help teach people about suicide, and may even help reduce risk.

Without news coverage, "the consequence for the community is that a very important issue is not discussed," said Kelly McBridge, an ethicist at the Poynter Institute, a research and education organization for journalists.

In writing the story, I tried to avoid elements that research indicates could have negative effects, and remained sensitive to the concerns of the family and the community.

Please let me know what you think.