Robin Williams. Kate Spade. Anthony Bourdain. All these names, among so many others, are associated with a common denominator. Suicide. With long and successful careers, their death made a huge impact in the public eye. The question is, how should the media talk about suicide? Whether it’s a prominent figure in pop culture or someone close to us, how do we prepare reporters and journalists to talk about a topic that has so much stigma surrounding it?
The Safe Reporting Summit that was held at KGW Studios last Friday invited journalists and reporters to join with leaders in suicide prevention to discuss solutions. Some of the featured speakers were Dr. John Draper, the head of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, Sheila Hamilton, author and host of a mental health podcast in Portland, and Shelby Rowe, the Oklahoma Suicide Prevention Program Manager. The summit covered topics such as how to report on suicide, as well as how to ask survivors and family members questions. Because of stigma, family confidentiality, and the fear that reporting may prompt others to end their life, reporters often have a difficult time approaching the topic of suicide.
One of the most important points to recognize is that topics like depression, mental illness, and suicide have been kept in the shadows for so long. These topics are very heavy and contain a lot of ugly truths that many people do not want to talk about.
Dr. John Draper gave important insight on how strongly the media’s depiction of suicide can affect people. Historically, the topic of suicide was discouraged in journalism for fear of prompting others to suicide as well. But, there are ways that media can bring attention to the topic suicide in a more practical and helpful way. John Draper used the example of the popular rapper Logic’s famous hit song “Suicide Hotline,” in which he opens up about his struggle with mental health and mentions the National Suicide Lifeline number. This song, and the coverage surrounding it, prompted so many young people to reach out to the crisis lines. Draper encouraged members of the media to frame the focus of suicide away from the means, and more focused on giving help to those who are struggling.
One suggestion that Shelby Rowe, a survivor of suicide, said in her commentary was that focusing on the healing of a survivor is very important. When people are curious about the means of suicide, it important to ask them what story they are trying to tell with that question. It can be very traumatizing to relive the experience surrounding a suicide, especially for survivors. They are growing and healing, so rather than focusing on the dark place that they were in, it is more beneficial to the public to focus on the hope that they found to stay alive.
Emmy Award winning investigative reporter, Kyle Iboshi, and Craig Smullin, News Director of KOBI News, and Editor and VP of Content at the Oregonian Therese Bottomly offered insight to the Vista bridge, also unfortunately known as “suicide bridge” in Portland. When doing investigative journalism about suicide there are a lot of important decisions to make, such as which pictures to use and which people to ask for quotes. And, if the suicide is supposed to be a political statement, do you share that with the public?
There was positive discussion about generational differences when journalists report on suicide. For instance, the older generation may want to censor some graphic details or images, while the younger generation feels like within the age of the internet, anybody can find what they’re trying to keep censored anyway. There are so many questions that are impossible to answer when someone who suicided isn’t there to answer them. A key point is knowing that we can never really know why someone suicides, because it’s never just one reason.
Another panel titled “Reporting in Digital Space: Unique Challenges in Reporting on Suicide” discussed new innovations that are being used on social platforms like Facebook and Instagram that help give messages and resources to someone who is potentially struggling. Mila Mimica, Content Producer at KGW and Frances Gonzalez, of Vibrant Health, shared that there are key phrases and words that are marked as potential risks, and an alert message will come up with the number to the National Suicide Crisis Line. It is incredible to see how modern technologies are helping in giving positive messages and resources to those who need them most, when they need them most.
Stigma surrounding suicide is still rampant. Many people ask questions that seem very invasive and insensitive, but the reality is that so much of the public still doesn’t understand suicide. The best thing that the media can do to help break down the stigma is to report on suicide in a safe way. Safe doesn’t necessarily mean censoring things. It just means that the person’s suicide should not be romanticized, shamed, or exploited. The best think they can do is spread messages of help and hope.
Reporters and journalists have a lot of power and influence. They can shape ideas and beliefs about important topics like mental health and suicide. Continuing important discussions about safe reporting and allowing survivors to share how they want to tell their story will help us make strides toward breaking down stigma.