Responsible Reporting of Suicides

NB: While the commentary below originally appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer in 2004, the issues discussed are, sadly, just as relevant today.  There have been some changes in the manner in which suicide is reported in the media, however there are still glaring misconceptions about the appropriate way to cover a suicide, if it is appropriate in the first place, terms to use and terms to avoid, and a lack of knowledge about facts, risk factors, and warning signs.  The hope is that this article will serve as a reminder about the importance of responsible reporting of suicides and the responsibility of media outlets to provide relevant facts and information.  

Report Suicides Responsibly

by Tony Salvatore, MA

Like many, I was saddened to read of the deaths of David Wallace and his wife, Joan, particularly of the means by which they died (“Eminent architect dies in double suicide,” July 20).

Given David Wallace’s stature, and the comparative rarity of double suicides, I understand why this tragic situation would receive significant media attention. However, from my suicide-prevention perspective, the nature of The Inquirer’s coverage raises a number of concerns.

First, the article appeared on the front page. Second, it included a fairly detailed description of the method by which the couple ended their lives. Third, it made no effort to put the deaths into the context of suicides among elders. Sadly, these are increasing in what is often called a silent epidemic.

A number of organizations have offered guidelines for coverage of suicide. They seek to raise awareness that some vulnerable, high-risk individuals may carry out their own suicides by reading detailed news accounts of how others took their own lives. One such set came in 2001 from the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, acting in concert with national suicide-prevention organizations.

The report, “Reporting on Suicide: Recommendations for the Media,” explicitly discourages the placement of such stories on the front page or at the top of a broadcast. It is understood that suicides involving prominent persons, public circumstances, multiple deaths, or the very young are generally considered newsworthy. The Wallaces’ deaths fell into two of these categories and merited coverage. However, front-page treatment was not necessary.

Of greater concern was the detailed description of the lethal means that the Wallaces employed – another practice that the Annenberg report discourages.

These details, which I obviously choose not to get into here, were not essential to reporting this loss. Moreover, given that some may see these deaths as rational suicides – Joan Wallace was in hospice care; David Wallace had cancer – some circumspection was in order.

So-called copycat suicides are not limited to youths. It is to be hoped that The Inquirer would not have described the means used in reporting a high-profile teen suicide. The same judgment should have applied here.

Lastly, the Wallaces, David Wallace in particular, were in an age group at high risk of suicide, a fact not well known. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there is a suicide by someone over 65 every 90 minutes, which amounts to 16 such deaths daily in the United States. Elders account for 20 percent of all suicides but represent only about 12 percent of the population. White men over 85 have a suicide rate six times higher than the national average.

Statewide, says the Pennsylvania Department of Health, there were more than 1,200 suicides among people 65 and over from 1997 through 2001 and fewer than 400 among those 19 or younger.

This same pattern prevails in Southeastern Pennsylvania, where elders accounted for more than 18 percent of all suicides in the same period and youths represented less than 6 percent of the losses.

The point is not that greater numbers make elder suicides more distressing than those at the opposite end of the age spectrum. Rather the point is that The Inquirer, having chosen to highlight the deaths of David and Joan Wallace, could have used this opportunity to inform its readers about the little-known incidence of suicide in the “golden years.”

Depression and hopelessness play a prominent role in elder suicide. Neither condition is normal at any age. Caregivers and health-care providers could have been alerted to these possible precursors to suicide in elders.

The Inquirer could also have noted that frailty makes the elderly less likely to survive suicide attempts. And it could have mentioned that greater social isolation makes it less likely that elders attempting suicide will be discovered in time to save their lives.

With the accelerated aging of our society, we must pay more attention to elder suicide and how the media should treat it. Suicide prevention is obviously not the media’s primary job. Nonetheless, it can play a powerful role in educating the community about this preventable problem.

Tony Salvatore is director of development of Montgomery County Emergency Services Inc., a nonprofit emergency psychiatric agency in Norristown.

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