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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Covering Death by Suicide

Bella Rios

Bella Rios was a 2018-2019 Hackworth Fellow at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

Student news editor, Hana, opens her school inbox to learn the devastating news that a classmate died. She later learns by word of mouth that he died by suicide, which was not reported in the campus-wide email. 

As the news editor, Hana thinks that negligence of mental health is a prominent issue on her campus. Perhaps covering the obituary of this student can pay homage to his memory and also shed light on the importance of mental health care. The student was very involved on campus life and highly regarded by many. He was involved in student government, environmental justice advocacy, and interfaith programming. Many did not know, however, that he also struggled with depression.

Hana also considers her pledge to minimizing harm in her reporting. She researches the contagion theory which states that news coverage of suicide increases the risk that those with suicidal thoughts will harm themselves. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention advises against including graphic details of the death and urges journalists to include helpline information.

She also does not want to pander to morbid curiosity, or people’s fascination with tragedy.  Hana believes that would be disrespectful to the mourning family and the student’s memory.

On the other hand, not covering his death risks further stigmatizing mental health issues. Her article could initiate an important dialogue about healthy coping mechanisms and access to mental health resources on campus.  Should Hana cover this story?

Discussion Questions

  1. When should death by suicide receive news coverage?
  2. What steps should be taken to ensure that the story, if published, minimizes harm to those with suicidal thoughts?
  3. What are the newspaper’s responsibilities to its readers when covering death by suicide?
  4. As a reporter, would you name the student? Why or why not?
  5. If asked to explain your editorial decision to the student community, how would you justify it?
Jun 7, 2019