Tough Calls: Deciding When a Suicide Is Newsworthy and What Details to Include Are among Journalism's More Sensitive Decisions

Article excerpt

Shortly before 10 a.m. on August 22, a man jumped from the top of the New York Times' 15-story building in Times Square. Allen Myerson, 47, was a staffer at the paper, an assistant business and financial editor, and he landed on the roof of a parking garage next door. That's where police found him. Dead--an apparent suicide.

The next day's obits ranged from a respectful one in the Times--declaring that Myerson "fell from a parapet above the 15th floor" and that the preliminary police finding was suicide--to the New York Post's play-by-play of the moments before death and exposure of the editor's marital and financial difficulties. New York's Daily News went with something in between--some detail of what Myerson had done that day but no information on any personal problems. A number of papers ran briefs.

Journalists sent letters to Jim Romenesko's MediaNews Weblog, saying that the Times had been too reserved in its coverage or the Post had been outrageous. The debate on how to cover suicide had been reignited.

"Suicide is a deeply troubling issue that pains family and friends," wrote Roland Martin, editor of blackamericaweb.com and news editor of Savoy magazine. "But the moment it became a news story, it is incumbent upon us as journalists to tell the facts behind the story. The story in this case was the suicide. Marriage and financial issues is the context of the story. Journalists should not shy away from the context just because it involves one of our colleagues."

Times business editor Patrick J. Lyons disagreed. "It is long past time the media got out of the 'it bleeds, it leads' business of playing to the basest gutter strain of morbid curiosity and mislabelling it 'news,'" he wrote. "All that does is debase us, and further batter our withering claim on the trust and confidence of the public."

Keith J. Kelly, the media columnist for the Post who wrote the Myerson story, says the paper didn't go overboard in its coverage. "Certainly if anyone in the public eye jumps off the very public building of their employer, that's news," he says. "And we could have said much worse things. I thought just alluding to his marital difficulties was fine. We didn't get into details." The Times declined to comment on Myerson's death and the paper's coverage.

The Times and the Post handle many stories in divergent ways, but the sensitive nature of suicides has raised tricky ethical questions for journalists. If a suicide is committed in a public place or by a public figure, is it automatically news? If a person is not well-known, does a story need to be done at all? Should the contents of a suicide note be published? How concerned should journalists be about a copycat effect?

Critics of suicide coverage often point to possible imitation as their chief concern. While they understand that reporters sometimes need to write about suicides, social scientists would like the media not to include much detail, particularly information on how the person killed himself or herself, and to stay away from splashy play-two aspects of coverage that could trigger copycats. But there is a tension between what the experts want and what the media normally do report on newsworthy incidents with as much explanation as possible.

Covering suicides is such a touchy subject that many editors contacted for this story didn't want to talk about their policies, even in hypothetical terms. They say each situation is different and decisions are made as needed. Many news organizations don't have standing guidelines. Neither does the Society of Professional Journalists. "I think you have to take each case on its individual merits and make a decision that way," says Gary Hill, chairman of SPJ's ethics committee and director of investigations and special segments for KSTP-TV in St. Paul, Minnesota. "You can never say that you won't cover suicide, but when you do, if you can somehow help people out, that's great. …