Point A Case of Journalistic Negligence
Counterpoint A Case of Student Safety
by Zachary Alexander
The call came from my mom, who asked me if I was somewhere I could talk. Her voice wavered. Something had happened.
She told me a student had killed himself. That he’d overdosed on SSRIs alone in his dorm room. That he’d remained conscious and cognizant, calling 911 and making it to the hospital, only to die from a series of seizures a few days later. She told me his name and asked if I knew him.
I did know him, although it’s more accurate to say I knew of him. He’d been an aspiring poet with a pretty sizable following on the local slam scene. A close friend of mine knew him better. Later she told me he’d struggled terribly with depression and had used poetry as an outlet. She said he thought he was ugly.
It was my freshman year and I’d just started taking Prozac, largely to help combat my own crushing feelings of physical ugliness. The parallel unsettled me. My mom asked if I’d heard anything about the suicide. I hadn’t. There was no email sent to students and no article in the campus paper. Only her call. Her call, and the sudden realization that I had nobody to talk to. After all, who else knew about the suicide? To most students, it hadn’t even happened.
The poet’s suicide is not an isolated incident. There are many others, and will be many more to come. The fact is that a number of students at the University kill themselves every year. We just don’t hear about it.
I challenge you to scour the online archives of student news publications here on campus for any mention of student suicides. My own search returned two articles in the past seven years. Now what if I told you there were more than eight student suicides my freshman year alone? What if I told you a student killed himself within the last two weeks? Did you read about those?
College newspapers have a duty to cover student suicides. Failure to do so constitutes journalistic negligence.
A common defense of not covering suicides is that such coverage would promote “copy-cat” incidents. In the wake of Tyler Clementi’s death last fall, it is true that some other gay students killed themselves. For proponents of the “copy-cat” theory, this fact alone provides the validation they need. But it’s just not that simple.
To my mind the “copy-cat” defense is rooted not only in ignorance but hypocrisy. After all, that same defense would never be applied to, say, coverage of a serial rapist. But if the “copy-cat” theory holds true, wouldn’t such coverage impel people with criminal tendencies to go out and commit rapes?
A possible editorial response: “Well, we need to cover rapists because their presence actively endangers people.” That is absolutely true. And such coverage is incredibly vital. But what this argument doesn’t consider is that failing to cover suicides endangers people too — namely, those who desperately need psychological help.
So what do you think about when you think about suicide coverage?
“Freshman John Smith was found yesterday in his dorm in a pool of blood, the result of what authorities suspect was a self-inflicted gunshot wound.”
Or, “It was a plastic bag over her head.”
That first line I made up. The second one is from a real college newspaper, reporting a real suicide. Both are examples of “tragedy porn” — the kind of flagrantly exploitative coverage spawned by that old tabloid maxim, If it bleeds, it leads. This is not the kind of coverage I’m talking about. I’m talking about journalism that helps people. Sometimes journalism can’t just be an objective relaying of facts. Sometimes it’s journalism’s duty to provide a service.
Any college newspaper with a modicum of journalistic integrity should cover student suicides. This coverage should not only respectfully discuss the incident itself, but also it should include information about services available to people with suicidal feelings. Ultimately, the role of a student newspaper in a student suicide situation is to serve as a liaison between at-risk people and the services they need. College newspapers that fail to do this lose journalistic credibility.
A few weeks after the aspiring poet killed himself, a group of his friends gathered to celebrate his life. They reminisced about his talent and self-effacement and wrote free verse in his memory. They visited the cemetery where he was buried and walked among the graves.
Beyond the graveyard, in a distinguished house on the Old West Side, lie the ashes of another student who killed himself. It was 2007. Generous, compassionate and gifted, he was only two weeks into his freshman year at the University. Like the poet, he’d been profoundly depressed.
Thankfully, I’ve never experienced a serious suicidal impulse. But I do know what it is to feel utterly alone. And I know how loneliness perpetuates an introversion that makes you suffer in silence.
How can we stop this?
By shattering that silence with a clear voice of compassion and support. The kind of authoritative voice that shows you you’re not alone: The voice of a newspaper with a pulse.
Suicide is one of the most somber and sensitive issues affecting college campuses across the United States. After a rash of suicides in 2010, including the widely publicized case of Tyler Clementi at Rutgers, the ethics of student suicide coverage deserves an informed discussion. This string of nationally covered student suicides introduces an ethical dilemma for student-run newspapers, such as The Michigan Daily, which must balance their responsibility to report campus news while respecting the privacy of those who have suffered such a devastating tragedy. But these responsibilities are minor in comparison to a student paper’s responsibility to preserve campus safety and public health. The risk of increasing the student suicide rate through a phenomenon known as the “copycat suicide” effect outweighs any benefits of reporting student suicides.
Student newspapers, obviously, need to report campus news — but this does not include reporting on personal, private choices made by students at a university. Attempted suicide survivors and the families of suicide victims have a right to post-mortem privacy. By reporting on suicide, campus newspapers discard the right of the dead to not have his or her life dissected by strangers, and they discard the media for a story that is simply not newsworthy. After a suicide, even when the name is withheld, speculation and hysteria by writers and readers alike often follow; rumors about the identity of the victim can travel quickly across a college campus. As a result, the victim is dehumanized, becoming a symbol or case study instead of a student who deserves privacy.
The intrusion doesn’t stop there, but extends to a victim’s family. Readers are left to poke, prod and examine the family, searching for a cause of the suicide. By reporting on specific suicides, the media creates a morbid spectacle without facilitating raised awareness for mental health issues and assistance. A victim’s family and friends are left more broken than before under the scrutiny student newspapers and the rumors their reporting can create.
As mentioned earlier, invasion of privacy is secondary. Suicide reporting also creates a phenomenon known as the copycat effect. After a suicide is reported, a cluster of suicides often follows in its wake; this is no coincidence. The copycat effect works by priming the brains of those on the edge of suicide to concentrate at length on suicide as an option. The primed brain begins to identify with the victims reported, and the person on the edge will often follow their trajectory toward this most undesirable of solutions to mental illness. The copycat effect is not only observable with suicide coverage; reports on school shootings and pop-culture trends, for example, can have similar effects.
This effect was noted as early as 1774 with the publication of Goethe’s The Sorrows Of Young Werther. Suicide rates in New York and other areas where the book gained popularity increased significantly. This increase in suicides was especially pronounced among the young, who identified with the novel’s main character, a lovesick young man who ultimately takes his own life. These cluster effects only compound the privacy issues discussed above. The initial report legitimizes the act of suicide by treating it as a news event instead of a personal mental health problem, and from here the copycat effect is magnified once victims become local celebrities. People who are already struggling with mental illness may be enticed by the prospect of their death receiving public recognition. By refraining from reporting on campus suicides, there is no risk of giving victims celebrity status. Even with the best intentions and tasteful reporting, the coverage of student suicides inevitably glorifies the act.
The final issue in regard to reporting on suicides by college media sources involves the profession of student journalism itself. While The Michigan Daily and other college newspapers provide good coverage of local issues, there has to be some hesitation on the part of a student newspaper’s editorial staff to allow student journalists to cover an issue as sensitive as student suicides. Papers have ethical guidelines for a reason, and the current policy of most student newspapers not to cover student suicides is in line with most professional, nationally syndicated newspapers. These ethical guidelines must dictate what and how a story is reported, and in the case of student suicides, a mistake can have wide ranging implications for both the readers and people directly attached to the victim. If the copycat effect comes to fruition on a college campus — and there is plenty of evidence to suggest that it would — does the school newspaper bear some responsibility? There is no reason for a paper to take this risk.
Instead of reporting on suicides, college news outlets should focus on suicide prevention through mental health and resource advocacy. By focusing exclusively on life-positive items, newspapers can direct people to healthy outlets to settle their internal issues. Unsolicited suicide awareness is a much better route because it causes no invasion of privacy, no speculation, and no glorification of suicide. Most importantly, it will protect students who are already at risk.
About the Issue
Point author: The author is a University of Michigan junior who works for a publication on campus and wishes to remain anonymous.
Counterpoint author: Zachary Alexander is a class of 2013 Political Science and History Major. His interests are free writing, hockey, and politics.
Edited by: Mike Guisinger
Cover by: Lulu Tang, Matt Rosner, and Meredith Monticello