Florida Suicide Prevention Coalition (FSPC)

Home Learn the SIGNS Upcoming Events The FACTS/Statistics Resources-Links Gov't Contacts State History Media Survivors About FSPC Join FSPC Find Your Area


Reporting on Suicide:
Recommendations for the Media
 

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP)
For the Media
AFSP: For the Media

Center for Disease Control (CDC)
Suicide Contagion and the Reporting of Suicide: Recommendations from a National Workshop

Reporting of Suicide: Recommendations

Suicide Prevention Action Network USA (SPANUSA)
Resources for the Media
Resources for the Media

Responsible Media Coverage of Suicide

By:  Liisa Hyvarinen, Freelance Journalist

1999-2000 Fellow, Rosalynn Carter Fellowships for Mental Health Journalism,
Atlanta, Ga

Producer/Reporter – “Silent Screams,” a documentary

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 health issues.

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 coverage.)

·      they are completed in a public place

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) www.afsp.org  and (American Association of Suicidology) www.suicidology.org

·      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 follow up.

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 to attend.

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 Disabilities.

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.  

If you 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.

[go to top of page]