Responsible Media Coverage of Suicide
By: Liisa Hyvarinen, Freelance Journalist
1999-2000 Fellow, Rosalynn Carter
Fellowships for Mental Health Journalism,
Producer/Reporter – “Silent Screams,”
SUICIDE AND THE MEDIA
Suicide is a subject that
rarely gets covered in the media because many news outlets have policies that
limit their coverage. These limits are based on the notion that publicizing
suicide leads to more suicides. However, in his 1999 Call for Action to Prevent
Suicide, US Surgeon General Dr David Satcher, classified suicide as a national
emergency. That alone makes suicide a legitimate news item for those covering
This presentation is
designed to educate each participant of effective ways to deal with the media in
order to accomplish responsible coverage on the issue of suicide. Participants
will learn how to react to a suicide case that does make the news and how to
utilize that situation to promote responsible coverage in the media.
WHEN DOES SUICIDE GET COVERED?
Suicide related stories
historically only get covered by the media if:
they involve a public figure
they are completed in a way that
endangers other people
they are the result of a “suicide
by cop” incident
they involve other individuals,
i.e. a murder-suicide
They involve the suicidal person’s
pets (in 1998 a man in St Petersburg, FL jumped to his death from a local bridge
taking his dog with him. The dog survived and became the focus of the media’s
they are completed in a public
HOW TO REACT
To ensure suicide
prevention message is included in the media coverage of one of the above
mentioned instances, establish the following:
Have a spokesperson that can be
contacted by the media to get more information about prevention and statistics.
Make sure that media person has a pager and cell phone and can be reached 24
hours a day, 7 days a week. That media person should also make a point of
getting to know each reporter at each local news outlet who covers health and
medicine. Cultivate that person by taking them to lunch or visiting with them at
the TV or radio station or publication.
Keep a file of suicide survivors’
names who are willing to talk about their experience in the media
Give the reporter or producer
covering the story a “do’s and don’ts” list of what should and should not be
included in the story (sample list is attached).
Find out the name of the
supervisor of the reporter or producer doing the report so you can follow up
with them after the story has aired. Do not ask for this name in a
confrontational way – explain you just want to express you gratitude for this
subject being covered responsibly
Keep copies of all coverage for
your files. This way you can show the reporter or producer examples of good and
bad coverage of suicide later on.
HOW TO COVER SUICIDE – “THE DO’S AND DON’T’S”
Before granting an
interview, explain the basic ideology of responsible coverage to the reporter.
Do this before the interview begins so that both you and the reporter/producer
both understand these rules. Remember, the reporter can only use what you want
to tell him/her – what does not get said can’t be quoted. Only say the things
you want included in the story.
Responsible coverage does not
indicate the exact way in which a suicide was completed. Why? You don’t want to
give a road map to a successful suicide. It’s ok to say someone shot him/herself
but exactly where they pointed the gun is too much detail. It’s ok to say they
took pills but what kind and how much is not.
Explain to the reporter that
glorifying the dead encourages others to immortalize themselves in the press.
Therefore ask them not to write pieces that paint the person as an exceptional
individual. They undoubtedly were wonderful people but the emphasis should be on
how this person is just 1 of the 32,000 people a year who die by suicide and
that there are 500,000 people each year in the US who need emergency room
treatment for a suicide attempt. (These facts are in the Surgeon General’s 1999
Call to Action).
Explain to the reporter that
talking about suicide does not put the idea in someone’s head. Frank discussion
about the issue leads to people seeking help (again this is in the 1999 Call to
Action by the Surgeon General)
Direct the reporter to web sites
that have solid background information he/she can use to supplement the story
such as (Suicide Prevention Advocacy Network)
www.spanusa.org/ (American Foundation for Suicide Prevention)
and (American Association of Suicidology)
If your organization has a crisis
hotline number, make sure it gets used in the story.
“Suicide is a health emergency in
this country.” This is a solid and accurate quote to give. When you use it,
qualify it by saying it was Surgeon General Dr. David Satcher who said it first
in his Call to Action in 1999.
HOW TO FOLLOW UP AFTER A STORY
Follow up is critical in
establishing a relationship with a news outlet that ensures more balanced and
responsible coverage of suicide in the future. You should follow up with:
the reporter or producer who did
the story. Do this by phone within three days of the article/news story
appearing. After the phone call, send a letter.
the news director of the TV
station or radio station that aired the story or the metro editor of the
publication that printed it. Do this one in writing. Thank the news manager for
the news outlet’s efforts to provide coverage on this issue. Ask to have a
meeting to further discuss the issue. Propose a possible community affairs
program on this issue and offer your group’s spokesperson as a representative to
appear on such a program. CC the letter to the TV/radio station’s general
manager and community affairs director. Follow up in a few weeks by telephone –
be persistent. These people are very busy but will eventually return your call.
If the news director does not get back to you, call the general manager to
HOW TO GENERATE “FEATURE” STORIES ON SUICIDE PREVENTION
Feature stories are special
stories done without a “news peg” – an actual current incident of suicide making
the news. Accomplishing such coverage takes time and effort because you need to
cultivate a news professional to be interested in covering this health issue.
What helps to get such stories covered are the following:
Remembrance events – if our
organization holds events honoring those lost to suicide make sure they are
visual. The National Awareness Event by the SPAN-USA is a good example. The
organization uses quilt with the pictures of those lost to suicide on them as an
illustration. They also have a candlelight march. The Yellow Ribbon has an
annual balloon release. Events like that give a TV station, which is a visual
media, something to take pictures of.
Visit your local suicide survivors
group and see if they would invite a local columnist the group members like to
come to a meeting. Propose to the visitor that no member’s privacy will be
breached because what is said in these meetings will give the visitor more than
plenty to write about.
Encourage feature stories on any
new program or equipment that is installed at your local crisis center that can
help in the response to a suicidal individual.
Suggest stories on Yellow Ribbon
chapters (or other such organization) in individual schools.
Think LOCAL – suicide is a
national issue but local media likes to write about local issues. Hold local
events to highlight the national event and be persistent in inviting the media
HELPFUL MEDIA TIPS WHEN HOLDING AN EVENT
Send your press releases out at
least two weeks prior to the event and follow up every day by phone during the
last three days prior to the event.
Hold events at 10:30 am so they
are easy for the media to get to – do not hold news conferences after 1:30 p.m.
– by 2 p.m. TV reporters are on deadline for the 5 p.m. news. If you are holding
an evening event, make sure the TV reporters can be done by 8 p.m. – that gives
them enough time for the 10 p.m. and 11 p.m. newscasts.
Have clear handouts addressing the
“What, when, where, why and how” questions relating to your event.
Make sure there is a contact
number on that handout that will be answered for the rest of the day in case the
reporter while writing has follow up questions.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR/SPEAKER
Liisa K. Hyvarinen
is a freelance journalist based in Tampa, Florida working both in print and
broadcast. She also teaches journalism part-time at the University of South
Florida. She has also served as Dart Fellow for Journalism and Trauma with
University of Washington-Seattle and traveled to Rwanda to participate in trauma
related journalism training in June 2002. Liisa also has served as a Rosalynn
Carter Fellow for Mental Health Journalism at the Jimmy Carter Presidential
Library and Center in Atlanta. Hyvarinen started her career as a magazine writer
in San Francisco but has also worked extensively in television; her work has
appeared on NBC, CNN, ABC and CBS. Her documentary on depression and suicide, “Silent
Screams” was nominated for an Emmy Award in 2001 by the National Academy
of Television Arts and Sciences; her previous investigative work on public
safety issues earned her the Emmy in 1997. Her work has also been honored by
such prestigious journalism organizations as the Associated Press and the
Society of Professional Journalists as well as by others including Gannett
Corporation, Florida School Boards Association, The Board of Sponsors of
National Breast Cancer Awareness Month and the Coalition for Tennesseans with
Born in Baltimore, Maryland, Hyvarinen grew
up in Helsinki, Finland. She returned to the United States to attend the
University of San Francisco in 1988. She graduated Cum Laude from USF
three years later. She earned her Master’s Degree in Journalism in 1993
from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.
Hyvarinen’s work covering
suicide prevention began in 1998 after a well publicized suicide in St
Petersburg, FL involving the victim’s dog left her convinced mental health
issues – especially suicide – are not covered appropriately in the media. A
survivor of suicide herself, Hyvarinen lost her father in 1983 and has a sibling
who has been close to succeeding in suicide multiple times. Her full-length
documentary on suicide prevention titled “Silent Screams” was
inspired by her father’s life.
would like to receive a free copy for educational purposes, contact Hyvarinen at
(813)835 3784 or via e-mail at L_hyvarinen@hotmail.com.