Journalists, like many of you, sometimes have a hard time confronting suicide.
We’re not shy about discussing death. In fact, we can get right to the point in a grisly murder, reporting the news with a fairly unerring sense of respect, sensitivity and thoroughness. With suicide, or an attempted suicide, our instincts often turn tentative as we retreat into a zone of awkwardness.
When you think about it, it shouldn’t be that way. Suicide is a leading cause of death in the United States, and each year far more people die from suicide than, say, homicide. Statistically, we’re going to encounter it.
But suicide is about as private and personal a matter as there is, and professional journalists usually will err on the side of discretion in such instances. As a professional news organization, Noozhawk adheres to a defined set of guidelines that outline how our writers and editors should report and present the news. Our Noozhawk Style Manual addresses the subject of suicide succinctly, even tersely:
Suicides: In general, we do stories on suicides only in two cases: When the victim is prominent in the community or when the death occurs in a public place. We typically don’t name names.
Put another way, we’d prefer it didn’t happen, and we’d prefer not to talk about it if it did. Sound familiar?
Cold Spring Canyon Bridge is a public place, of course, and in Noozhawk’s two and a half years of existence we have reported on suicides there. With a small staff, we generally rely on official news releases from the Santa Barbara County Coroner’s Office as our source. Law-enforcement agencies have their own standards and practices.
Other media apparently have their own standards, too. Local newspapers and online blogs have drawn attention to the Cold Spring Canyon Bridge with glib headlines such as “Bridge of Despair” and “Fatal Attraction.” They not infrequently refer to the structure as a “suicide bridge.”
My friend, John McIntyre, is a longtime senior editor at The Sun in Baltimore and a founding member and two-term president of the American Copy Editors Society, of which I’m a charter member. I asked John if he might use his blog, You Don’t Say, to solicit feedback from his audience of copy editors. I wanted to know how Noozhawk measured up against other responsible news organizations.
What I got in return was a very thoughtful — and personal — summation of the issue and the American evolution of reporting on death in general and mental health in particular. He framed it exceptionally well and I appreciate his willingness to share his insight with us and with you. Click here to read his blog post and his own readers’ responses.
In addition, the American Association of Suicidology has suggested reporting guidelines for news articles, which includes adding crisis intervention services information and interviews with mental health professionals. Click here for those guidelines.
As an added benefit, we’ve found that our staff discussions have been quite healthy and helpful as we’ve worked through suicide and its implications, mental health issues, personal responsibility, the parameters of public safety, barriers for the bridge and boundaries for news coverage.
These conversations have been good for our Noozhawk family. We’d encourage you to try them at home.
Noozhawk’s Cold Spring Canyon Bridge Series
» Click here for free suicide prevention resources that are available 24 hours a day.
» Click here for the first story in Noozhawk’s four-day series on Cold Spring Canyon Bridge: Public Safety, Preservation Collide on Cold Spring Canyon Bridge.
» Click here for Day Two’s main story: Creativity a Hallmark of Bridge Barrier Alternatives, Funding.
» Click here for Day Three’s main story: For Barrier Opponents, There’s No Bridging This Divide.
» Click here for Day Four’s main story: Bridge Barrier Debate May Be Resolved in Span of a Month.
» Click here for a list of the various suicide prevention measures that were considered.
» Click here for a list of landmark bridges around the world employing suicide-prevention barriers.