Covering suicide raises tough questions for high school papers

Suicides and suicide attempts within highschools can turn everyday educational and lifestyle routines upside down. Evenwith such a muddled fog of emotions overwhelming the hallways and theclassrooms, student journalists have to start thinking about the event asnews.

Whether and how to cover suicide cases ina high school publication presents a dilemma. The newsworthiness of such a topicis clear, but the effects of reporting on such an unfortunate event to an agegroup in the height of self-discovery can be brutal, unlike many other storiesin the publication. There is no simple “right” or”wrong” answer to covering suicide.

The copycat effect know as suicidecontagion is real, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention(AFSP), and sensationalizing suicide in misleading and oversimplifying waysthrough media might only make it worse. But covering it can also promoteprevention, and show support to families who may be in desperate need of it.Findinga balanceTwo students who knew eachother committed suicide within two days of each other at Warren Central HighSchool in Indiana last year, according to Mark Haab, the school’spublications director. Several weeks later, a teacher at the high school diedunder circumstances suspected to be suicide. Haab and his staff had planned torun a suicide story in the next issue ofTheOwl after the students’suicides, without focusing too heavily on the students, but the teacher’sdeath prompted them to re-evaluate the coverage, and move it to the front pageof the paper.

They decided to focus on suicideprevention, and what the school was doing to help the students, staff andcommunity members. But he was apprehensive of the effects running the storymight cause.

“Any adviser has to be aware thatit’s a slippery slope any time you do anything controversial,” Haabsaid. “The trick is to keep the lines of communication open soadministrators are not blind-sided by what you’re doing. Advisers need toearn trust.”

Though the issue is sensitive, Haabargued that it can’t be escaped, and it should be treated in the mostrespectful and supportive way possible.

“The issue is there,” hesaid. “People know about it, they’re talking about it. One of ourroles is to get rid of the rumors and get the facts out there; here’s whatwe can do as a community and a school to get over this and heal and not it letit happen again.”

Haab and his staff re-planned the entirepage — a page that they not only had to scramble to finish, but also apage for which they had to map out an ethical compromise.

“While the deaths were certainlynews and needed to be covered, they were suicides,” he said. The editorswent back and forth about including photos of the two students and the teacheron the front page to accompany the story, and ultimately did not, learning thatsuicides should not be covered as other deaths, and especially how other regularnews might be covered.

When Jason Scales, student newspaperadviser ofLionat Lyons Township High School in Illinois, found out that a student committedsuicide during finals week after the final issue ofLionhad been printed, he and his staff wanted to start the new year’s firstissue with a front-page story about suicide. The article would include aninterview with the parents of the victim, and information on what the school iscurrently doing to support victims and combat future suicideattempts.

But Scales was warned by a high-rankingadministrator that running such coverage could encourage copycat attempts. Theadministrator did not want the story to run on the first page of the paper.Though he realized the copycat phenomenon was a solid argument, Scales stillwanted to let his staff make the content decision. Ultimately, the studentsdecided it was a story they thought was important, and they wanted to focus onwhat proactive measures the school was taking; but how to cover such a sensitivetopic was much more of a painstaking decision.

“My staff and I really agonizedover how to ‘play’ the suicide,” Scales said. “Thislayout differs greatly from the original one dreamed up by my editors. They[originally] wanted a picture of the kid who died by suicide as well as photosof the memorials set up for him.”

In the end, Scales and his students didnot mention suicide in the headline, subheadline, photos or photo captions. Thefront-page headline read, “Looking for Answers,” and the subheadlinereferenced measures taken to prevent bullying in the school. The suicide isreferenced in the lead of the main article and the editorial that ran on thefirst page. The parents of the student who died by suicide are also quoted inthe story.

The staff followed the federal Centersfor Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for media in reporting suicides,which warned against running certain types of images because of the fear thatadding visual aids would further prompt suicide contagion. Since the issue wasprinted and distributed, Scales has not heard one negative comment.

Iwould always stick up for my students’ rights to publish [if the principaltried to censor them],” Scales said. “I think it’s animportant issue to be covered. We were covering what the school was doingregarding anti-bullying.”

One of the students who committed suicideat Lyons Township dealt with bullies regularly. “He’d come homealmost daily and tell stories of his latest experience with the bullies,”the student’s father toldLion.The staff ran an editorial titled “Students: It’s up to you toprevent bullying” on the front page. What ultimately came of a story thatadministrators and staff members were hesitant about running was an importantmessage that infiltrated the school and helped discourage, rather than promote,future suicide attempts.

Tipping thescalesThe student journalists atWarren Central High School also held their coverage of the suicide in highregard — at the time. At the beginning of the school year following thedistribution of the issue with the front-page, suicide-related story, WarrenCentral suffered another student suicide, but decidednotto run a story in the paper about it. The scales were tipped the other way afterseveral meetings Haab and his students had with the Indiana spokesperson fromthe Jason Foundation — a nonprofit organization that helps identifyat-risk youth — who came to their school.

“The [spokesperson] said not topublicize the suicides at all because there are so many people on theborderline,” Haab said. “You don’t want to possibly givesomeone the excuse that this is all [he or she] has to do to get in the paper.For some people that’s why they commit suicide — to get attention.Sometimes it’s a chain reaction — one might lead toanother.”Administrators werealso told by Jason Foundation spokespeople to take down pictures of students whocommitted suicide that were hung at the front of the schoolbuilding.

“They were glorifying, notmemorializing” said Joni Irwin, the spokesperson for the Jason Foundation,who advised Warren Central administrators.

There is an important distinction betweenmemorializing and glorifying, and by hanging pictures at the front of the schoolbuilding and running photographs in the paper, Warren Central was glorifying,Irwin said. She said Indiana averages 94 suicide attempts by teenagers each day,and that people need to take a proactive stance when addressing theissue.

“Unfortunately, people want tosweep this under the rug,” she said. “But the thing with suicide isit knows no boundaries whatsoever.”

Irwin stressed the importance ofspreading the word that there is a need for a more active stance on suicideprevention through knowledge of statistics.

“We don’t need to know thenames of suicide victims,” she said. “If people only understood whatthe statistics are, more people would be on the bandwagon, and see a need forsuicide prevention. The thing we are trying to emphasize to them is that we needto get the message out.”

Haab said he and his students, inaddition to not using photographs of the students, will no longer use the namesof the victims in stories either. His and the students’ decision to runthe front-page article about the suicides last year came about as a way topromote a broader concept — prevention and support. He said theywouldn’t report on an individual suicide.

“If it were something moreconceptual … like if there is a car crash, we would do a story about how kidscan be more responsible,” Haab said. “With the suicides it was …dealing with the aftermath … ‘how do we get over such a tragicevent?’ “

The staff ofTheOwl decided turning the tragedyinto an opportunity to help was the golden mean between the two conflictingsides of the dilemma.

But when administrators take charge, itcan cause an imbalance in the decision-making process. The sensitivity of thesubject can prompt pressure from principals and other outside supervisors todisturb a publication’s original intent.

Lyndsey Sager, editor-in-chief ofTheStohion at Stow-Munroe Falls HighSchool in Ohio, was all set to run the second issue of the paper that was toinclude an obituary, photograph of a student suicide victim and a letter fromthe deceased student’s parents. Including an obituary and photograph ofthe victim in the paper has been a traditionTheStohion has always followed.

The issue was supposed to run at the endof September 2009. Everything was ready to go. Then, right before the paper wasto be sent to print, the Stow-Munroe Falls principal decided she wasuncomfortable with running the obituary or the photograph, and censored thepaper.

“The principal said, ‘I knowthis is censorship, but I can do what I want,'” Sager said,”even though this has been our policy for years.”

Sager said she and her staff members werenot willing to go to print until all the original elements could be included inthe paper.

“I did not know the student at all,but I still feel like if it’s something we did for everyone else, it wouldbe disrespectful to not do it for him,” Sager said. “I don’tunderstand what would make it OK to not do it for one child.”

The principal said she felt anoverwhelming need to protect her students, even if it meant censorship. The fearof instigating copycats was far too dangerous for her to even consider acompromise.Whatthe experts sayLegally, a highschool principal in Ohio may be limited in her ability to overrule studenteditors. Ohio is covered by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, and under theSixth Circuit’s Kincaid v.Gibson decision, a publication witha long practice of operating as a “forum” for student expression– meaning that students control the ultimate editorial decisions –can be censored only if the students’ speech is substantially disruptiveor illegal. If students have a well-founded basis for their decision — asin Stow-Munroe Falls, where they were following a long-established policy– then the school cannot simply substitute its judgment for theeditors’ judgment, said Frank LoMonte, executive director of the StudentPress Law Center.

There is a widespread misconception thatif publicizing a suicide or suicide attempt does influence imitators, thepublication is legally responsible for the copycat, LoMonte said.

But while the publication cannot be heldliable, it still is probably not something student editors and advisers wouldwant on their shoulders. Thedichotomy of tragedy and responsibility in such a situation requires asystematic and meticulous approach by high school journalists and advisers.

If the popular high school cheerleaderwho was on the honor roll and president of the Student Government Associationtakes her own life and the headline on the front page of the student newspaperreads “Senior Jane Doe takes her own life,” vulnerable students areat a great risk of having their anxiety pushed to the breaking point, accordingto Wylie Tene, public relations manager of the American Foundation for SuicidePrevention.

“That kind of story can contributeto contagions because the person who might be vulnerable might look up to thatperson,” Tene said. “They might think, ‘if there’s nothope for that person, there’s no hope for me.'”

But Tene still strongly believes highschools should cover suicides, to prevent further stigmatization of the issue,an issue that needs to be reported in a very particular way.

Guidelines for reporting on suicides andsuicide attempts based on more than 40 years of scientific research, Tene said,can be found on both the AFSP’s and the CDC’s Websites.

“Report about suicide,” Tenesaid. “Raising awareness about the issue, about mental illnesses and wherepeople can go to help can be very beneficial. I always look at it as reportingabout any other health issue. If it was reporting about AIDS/HIV, you’dwant to report information that can help people … new research treatments,doctor’s names, [etcetera], it needs to be the same forsuicide.”

CDC’s “Suicide Contagion andthe Reporting of Suicide” recommendations were composed at a nationalworkshop where suicidologists, public health officials, researchers,psychiatrists, psychologists and news media professionals addressed guidelinesfor reducing the possibility of media-related suicide contagion.

The recommendations and guidelinesinclude aspects of media coverage that can promote suicide contagion, and theyportray how to promote prevention through specific types of newscoverage.

Assistant Surgeon General of the UnitedStates Patrick O’Carroll led the group of professionals who compiledCDC’s guidelines for reporting on suicide. He said that while high schooljournalists should definitely report suicides, adolescents have a tendency totake a dramatic approach to life, making treatment of the coverage a topic thatrequires a detailed an responsible method.

“You can’t not report itbecause the students are all talking about it,” O’Carroll said.

“It’s not like they’renot aware of it. In a population of students, there is always going to be somesub-population that is going to be disturbed. Our guidance was about how toreport responsibly … despite how it may look, suicide is a permanent solutionto a temporary problem. What you want to do is celebrate the person, not theact, and highlight what a tragic decision it was.”

The greatergoodTo “seek and reporttruth” is an important aspect to consider in journalism, according to GeneForeman, former managing editor and vice president ofThe Philadelphia Inquirerand author of “The EthicalJournalist: Making Responsible Decisions in the Pursuit of News.”

The alternative to seeking and reportingthe truth is minimizing harm — sometimes journalists voluntarily make thejudgment call to publish less than the full story to reduce harm.

“You don’t minimize harm bysimply failing to report something that is newsworthy,” Foreman said.”You do it by leaving out details that don’t need to be told.[Suicide] probably is a big story at schools. Students are talking about it andare interested in it; it would be a mistake to ignore it.”

But student newspapers are in a uniqueposition to report on suicide, being so close to what is going on. High schooljournalists are part of the student community, and have the opportunity toreport on what is a very personal issue in a personal, honest way.

“Look at the statistics,”Haab said. “They show that it’s a very serious problem, andit’s also a very tricky problem for high school students and papers to dobecause it has to be handled very carefully. It’s a community problem …it goes back to home, or social problems or bullying. One of the things that apaper should do is bring these issues out and how do we solve them.”