Do no harm: How to talk about and report on suicide in productive ways

Journalists are tasked by our preeminent code of ethics to do no harm. Unfortunately, the media has been doing more harm than good in the coverage of Robin Williams' suicide. We can do better.

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  1. It's been a complicated week in media-land after the suicide death of movie star Robin Williams. What started as a breaking news crawl on a Monday afternoon ended in a barrage of speculation, some unfortunate shaming, and some super-sensational headlines. More than anything, the coverage downplayed the well-researched, well-supported, and very necessary message that suicide is a public health problem, not a simple, individual choice.  As journalists, we can positively influence help-seeking behavior. It's not a problem to discuss mental illness in your coverage. You absolutely should. But there are ways to approach it that help prevent further damage to vulnerable individuals.

    Here are two sources for the parameters that most journalists use in reporting suicide. (If you haven't read them and you're a reporter, get to it. It's not whether you need them now, but when you will need them later.) 
  2. While there was some great coverage that incited useful discussion after Williams' death, there were some big problems, too.

    Over and over, huge media outlets announced not only that Williams "committed suicide" (more on that in a minute), but the manner in which he killed himself. Not ok. Research tells us over and over that the risk of additional suicides increases when a story describes the method of suicide and when it sensationalizes the death. Just because we have information doesn't mean we always need to release it, and especially because it doesn't contribute to public understanding of the larger issue of suicide.
  3. There's a lot of danger in idealizing suicide in both social media postings and reportage. By visually focusing on tributes, we can inadvertently promote suicidal ideation. Try instead to include a graphic of the suicide hotline number with the warning signs for suicide risk.

  4. One other phrase that was passed around in coverage pretty heavily was "committed suicide," an archaic way of saying someone died by suicide. Most of us in the mental health reporting community refrain from using the phrase "committed suicide" because it indicates and emphasizes that what the person did was illegal (which it is not in any of the U.S. states). Use instead "killed himself," "completed suicide," or "died by suicide."
  5. It's important to understand the concept that depression and mental illness are public health issues. I heard one TV personality mourn the idea that Williams' just couldn't "ask for a hug from all the people who love him." That's not how this works. Treatment for severe depression involves a cadre of medical interventions and community action, not hugs.
  6. And as much as you might want to background the person to discover "reasons" that led to their suicide, you're not investigating a crime. There isn't one reason. Suicide is a complex monster, colored by many facets of the person's mental health and background. Don't try to give a reason for why they died because it will come off as overly simplistic or misleading.
  7. Who would want to see a live shot of the site of his death? (A huge contagion trigger.) Nobody did, but ABC News put that up on the web with a banner announcing it's accessibility. The network later apologized.
  8. TMZ wanted in on the action with their super-sensational headline. 
  9. And no, referring to someone with mental illness as possessed isn't a good move. 
  10. This story took all the rules and threw them out the window. Surely this level of detail translates to clicks, but remember, we are tasked with doing no harm. The level of detail and sensationalism JUST IN THE HEADLINE makes it the second-worst of the bunch. 
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