In the case of suicide: to publish, or not to publish?

The man jumped off the bridge on Aug. 2. He drove his car to the side of eastbound Interstate 240 and leaped to his death, landing on Emma Road below, according to police. Should Xpress have published news of the incident with his name?

We’ve been wrestling with this question for a couple of days. For many years, newspapers have declined to publish the names of most suicide victims. Why is that? Edward Wasserman discussed the issue in a blog last year, and what he says here, I think is particularly appropriate:

For the journalist a suicide story is always trouble. That’s partly because it’s painful and intrusive. And it’s partly because there’s an irreducible mystery at its core — why? — and the only person who might unlock that mystery, if questioned skillfully enough, is gone.

So you turn to the survivors. And while a reporter normally believes that with proximity comes credibility, that the nearer people are to the news the more valuable they are as sources, that’s often untrue — especially with suicides: The closer people are, the more damaged, baffled, guilt-ridden, emotionally invested, and problematic they’re likely to be as sources.

So the media steer clear. Although suicides claim twice as many lives as murders do, only three types generally make the news: those that take place in public, involve public figures — or exemplify some larger social problem.

That was one staffer’s criteria for publication: Does the man’s death have a greater context? Social relevance? Something beyond a sordid headline?

Our goal is to encourage thoughtful community dialogue. Is it somehow disrespectful to print this man’s name?

Another staffer argued it was more respectful to publish it than not. Why deny the person his identity in death? How is a suicide different than a homicide? It was a drastic measure, yes, but there isn’t shame in it, per se. Why should the subject, or the man’s name, be taboo? We shouldn’t be complicit in this culture of shame, that shouldn’t be the case, he argued.

Another point to consider: In this era of social media, everyone’s a publisher. We’re not gatekeepers, and most anyone could get the police report, which includes the deceased’s name. So whether we opt to publish the name or not, it’s available and easily disseminated. So, should we?

What do you think?

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8 thoughts on “In the case of suicide: to publish, or not to publish?

  1. uh-oh

    I agree with not publishing names.

    While I think suicide should be legalized,it should be discouraged in most cases.
    This jumper probably didn’t foresee the consequence of his action and how it might relate to those who care about him, or maybe those he cared about were his targeted audience. At least the rescue squad didn’t have to spend a day retrieving the body.
    Since you can’t take a bow what’s so hard about making it look like a tragic accident, especially if you have friends, parents, or children who care about you

  2. Margaret Williams

    Rebecca raises a good question. I confess I have somewhat mixed views of the issue in general.

    For instance, why do most media outlets publish the names of those arrested for fairly minor crimes? You could argue that reporting someone’s mistake — the woman recently arrested for knowingly pawning a stolen iPod, for example — is just as painful and intrusive. (I’m not saying that suicide is less so; but consider the media frenzy around singer Amy Winehouse’s recent death.)

    This past Tuesday, when an Asheville man jumped to his death from the Smokey Park bridge, an intern and I were manning the news desk, as we like to call it at Xpress.

    From our downtown office, we heard sirens in all directions, for what seemed like prolonged periods that morning. We knew about the funeral procession for Asheville firefighter Jeff Bowen, but there were also reports going up on Twitter about something happening at the bridge, something happening at Battery Park Apartments and, meanwhile, the power going out in a good section of downtown.

    We cover more and more breaking news these days, thanks to the opportunities afforded by the Internet and Twitter, and the intern and I got caught up in the excitement. Someone tweeted that it was “suicide” — but at Battery Park or Smokey Park bridge?

    Near the end of the business day, we got confirmation that a man had indeed jumped from the bridge, that a crane incident was what took out the power downtown and that smoke seen at Battery Park was likely from a generator. Glad to have to have sorted through the many rumors flying that day, we made sure the man’s family had been notified before we posted anything about the suicide.

    But we did post it online, albeit briefly, with his name.

    It was “news,” a report of recent events, verified and as accurate as we could make it. But in retrospect, I did wonder whether we should have included the victim’s name or posted it so prominently.

  3. Life & Death

    This is one reason I love Xpress, the ongoing dialogue about journalism, the role of Xpress in the community, etc.
    I actually think the name should be published, if the story is covered at all. If it’s newsworthy enough to mention at all, why hide the person’s identity? Without ID, it’s just an anonymous suicide story. It doesn’t offer room for any emotional impact or insight into the greater issue of suicide. It might as well have been a story about an unnamed suicide on a bridge I’m familiar with in Iowa or Alabama.

    I don’t believe in “Don’t print the name, it’ll only encourage them” line of reasoning. A life of sadness, and then a media blackout of their identity after death? Uggh. Nobody commits suicide to get their name in a blog post, but it seems if you’re to tell the story at all, tell THEIR story or steer clear entirely.

    And why should readers (after reading the Xpress story) then have to search around social media/other media outlets to find a name of the deceased?

    It seems like a cultural punishment for suicide not to print the name, when it’s S.O.P. for most other stories involving death.

  4. LOKEL

    Names of assaulted individuals are published and they are victims through no fault of their own.

    Accident victims are published, as are victims of murder and other intentional crimes (again, the victims are not at fault), so why not publish the name of a person who chooses to end their own life.

    The truth is always better than the rumors and gossip that inevitably follow something like this.

  5. Personally I would like to know a name after a few days time.

    There have been a couple of times where a customer we liked has committed suicide and we don’t find out until months or years later. I would have wanted to send a card or flowers. Understandingly we are not family or friends but have built a relationship through the store.

  6. Jack Hedden

    I agree with Lokel, that unintended victims of crime are published on a daily basis. So why not a suicide victim? Is it sympathy for the deceased? We should all feel some sympathy as human beings in this society together, but to single out one type of death and a non-name publishing event is ridiculous. Remember, just because it was done that way by you parents, their parents, and their parents (and by parents I mean newspaper companies over the years) it doesn’t mean you have to follow the same rules. You can “break the rules” and be a trend setter or you can be a sheep and be herded along with all the others by the “Moral Shepherd”

  7. JamieA

    I like Orbit DVD’s idea about posting the name a few days after the suicide. People who know the person casually and would like to acknowledge him/her or share in the grieving process will be able to. waiting a few days before publishing the name may spare people who knew the person well the shock and trauma of finding out first by reading it in the paper .

    Thank you Mt. Express for your sensitivity in considering this issue.

  8. T. Brass

    Publish. It is definitely more respectful to publish their name than not. LIke it was mentioned, not publishing only denies the person his identity in death. That makes a sad situation even sadder.

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