Covering suicide raises tough questions for high school papers

Suicides and suicide attempts within high schools can turn everyday educational and lifestyle routines upside down. Even with such a muddled fog of emotions overwhelming the hallways and the classrooms, student journalists have to start thinking about the event as news.

Whether and how to cover suicide cases in a high school publication presents a dilemma. The newsworthiness of such a topic is clear, but the effects of reporting on such an unfortunate event to an age group in the height of self-discovery can be brutal, unlike many other stories in the publication. There is no simple "right" or "wrong" answer to covering suicide.

The copycat effect know as suicide contagion is real, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), and sensationalizing suicide in misleading and oversimplifying ways through media might only make it worse. But covering it can also promote prevention, and show support to families who may be in desperate need of it. Finding a balanceTwo students who knew each other committed suicide within two days of each other at Warren Central High School in Indiana last year, according to Mark Haab, the school's publications director. Several weeks later, a teacher at the high school died under circumstances suspected to be suicide. Haab and his staff had planned to run a suicide story in the next issue of The Owl after the students' suicides, without focusing too heavily on the students, but the teacher's death prompted them to re-evaluate the coverage, and move it to the front page of the paper.

They decided to focus on suicide prevention, and what the school was doing to help the students, staff and community members. But he was apprehensive of the effects running the story might cause.

"Any adviser has to be aware that it's a slippery slope any time you do anything controversial," Haab said. "The trick is to keep the lines of communication open so administrators are not blind-sided by what you're doing. Advisers need to earn trust."

Though the issue is sensitive, Haab argued that it can't be escaped, and it should be treated in the most respectful and supportive way possible.

"The issue is there," he said. "People know about it, they're talking about it. One of our roles is to get rid of the rumors and get the facts out there; here's what we can do as a community and a school to get over this and heal and not it let it happen again."

Haab and his staff re-planned the entire page -- a page that they not only had to scramble to finish, but also a page for which they had to map out an ethical compromise.

"While the deaths were certainly news and needed to be covered, they were suicides," he said. The editors went back and forth about including photos of the two students and the teacher on the front page to accompany the story, and ultimately did not, learning that suicides should not be covered as other deaths, and especially how other regular news might be covered.

When Jason Scales, student newspaper adviser of Lion at Lyons Township High School in Illinois, found out that a student committed suicide during finals week after the final issue of Lion had been printed, he and his staff wanted to start the new year's first issue with a front-page story about suicide. The article would include an interview with the parents of the victim, and information on what the school is currently doing to support victims and combat future suicide attempts.

But Scales was warned by a high-ranking administrator that running such coverage could encourage copycat attempts. The administrator did not want the story to run on the first page of the paper. Though he realized the copycat phenomenon was a solid argument, Scales still wanted to let his staff make the content decision. Ultimately, the students decided it was a story they thought was important, and they wanted to focus on what proactive measures the school was taking; but how to cover such a sensitive topic was much more of a painstaking decision.

"My staff and I really agonized over how to 'play' the suicide," Scales said. "This layout differs greatly from the original one dreamed up by my editors. They [originally] wanted a picture of the kid who died by suicide as well as photos of the memorials set up for him."

In the end, Scales and his students did not mention suicide in the headline, subheadline, photos or photo captions. The front-page headline read, "Looking for Answers," and the subheadline referenced measures taken to prevent bullying in the school. The suicide is referenced in the lead of the main article and the editorial that ran on the first page. The parents of the student who died by suicide are also quoted in the story.

The staff followed the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for media in reporting suicides, which warned against running certain types of images because of the fear that adding visual aids would further prompt suicide contagion. Since the issue was printed and distributed, Scales has not heard one negative comment.

I would always stick up for my students' rights to publish [if the principal tried to censor them]," Scales said. "I think it's an important issue to be covered. We were covering what the school was doing regarding anti-bullying."

One of the students who committed suicide at Lyons Township dealt with bullies regularly. "He'd come home almost daily and tell stories of his latest experience with the bullies," the student's father told Lion. The staff ran an editorial titled "Students: It's up to you to prevent bullying" on the front page. What ultimately came of a story that administrators and staff members were hesitant about running was an important message that infiltrated the school and helped discourage, rather than promote, future suicide attempts.

Tipping the scalesThe student journalists at Warren Central High School also held their coverage of the suicide in high regard -- at the time. At the beginning of the school year following the distribution of the issue with the front-page, suicide-related story, Warren Central suffered another student suicide, but decided not to run a story in the paper about it. The scales were tipped the other way after several meetings Haab and his students had with the Indiana spokesperson from the Jason Foundation -- a nonprofit organization that helps identify at-risk youth -- who came to their school.

"The [spokesperson] said not to publicize the suicides at all because there are so many people on the borderline," Haab said. "You don't want to possibly give someone the excuse that this is all [he or she] has to do to get in the paper. For some people that's why they commit suicide -- to get attention. Sometimes it's a chain reaction -- one might lead to another."Administrators were also told by Jason Foundation spokespeople to take down pictures of students who committed suicide that were hung at the front of the school building.

"They were glorifying, not memorializing" said Joni Irwin, the spokesperson for the Jason Foundation, who advised Warren Central administrators.

There is an important distinction between memorializing and glorifying, and by hanging pictures at the front of the school building and running photographs in the paper, Warren Central was glorifying, Irwin said. She said Indiana averages 94 suicide attempts by teenagers each day, and that people need to take a proactive stance when addressing the issue.

"Unfortunately, people want to sweep this under the rug," she said. "But the thing with suicide is it knows no boundaries whatsoever."

Irwin stressed the importance of spreading the word that there is a need for a more active stance on suicide prevention through knowledge of statistics.

"We don't need to know the names of suicide victims," she said. "If people only understood what the statistics are, more people would be on the bandwagon, and see a need for suicide prevention. The thing we are trying to emphasize to them is that we need to get the message out."

Haab said he and his students, in addition to not using photographs of the students, will no longer use the names of the victims in stories either. His and the students' decision to run the front-page article about the suicides last year came about as a way to promote a broader concept -- prevention and support. He said they wouldn't report on an individual suicide.

"If it were something more conceptual ... like if there is a car crash, we would do a story about how kids can be more responsible," Haab said. "With the suicides it was ... dealing with the aftermath ... 'how do we get over such a tragic event?' "

The staff of The Owl decided turning the tragedy into an opportunity to help was the golden mean between the two conflicting sides of the dilemma.

But when administrators take charge, it can cause an imbalance in the decision-making process. The sensitivity of the subject can prompt pressure from principals and other outside supervisors to disturb a publication's original intent.

Lyndsey Sager, editor-in-chief of The Stohion at Stow-Munroe Falls High School in Ohio, was all set to run the second issue of the paper that was to include an obituary, photograph of a student suicide victim and a letter from the deceased student's parents. Including an obituary and photograph of the victim in the paper has been a tradition The Stohion has always followed.

The issue was supposed to run at the end of September 2009. Everything was ready to go. Then, right before the paper was to be sent to print, the Stow-Munroe Falls principal decided she was uncomfortable with running the obituary or the photograph, and censored the paper.

"The principal said, 'I know this is censorship, but I can do what I want,'" Sager said, "even though this has been our policy for years."

Sager said she and her staff members were not willing to go to print until all the original elements could be included in the paper.

"I did not know the student at all, but I still feel like if it's something we did for everyone else, it would be disrespectful to not do it for him," Sager said. "I don't understand what would make it OK to not do it for one child."

The principal said she felt an overwhelming need to protect her students, even if it meant censorship. The fear of instigating copycats was far too dangerous for her to even consider a compromise. What the experts sayLegally, a high school principal in Ohio may be limited in her ability to overrule student editors. Ohio is covered by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, and under the Sixth Circuit's Kincaid v. Gibson decision, a publication with a long practice of operating as a "forum" for student expression -- meaning that students control the ultimate editorial decisions -- can be censored only if the students' speech is substantially disruptive or illegal. If students have a well-founded basis for their decision -- as in Stow-Munroe Falls, where they were following a long-established policy -- then the school cannot simply substitute its judgment for the editors' judgment, said Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center.

There is a widespread misconception that if publicizing a suicide or suicide attempt does influence imitators, the publication is legally responsible for the copycat, LoMonte said.

But while the publication cannot be held liable, it still is probably not something student editors and advisers would want on their shoulders. The dichotomy of tragedy and responsibility in such a situation requires a systematic and meticulous approach by high school journalists and advisers.

If the popular high school cheerleader who was on the honor roll and president of the Student Government Association takes her own life and the headline on the front page of the student newspaper reads "Senior Jane Doe takes her own life," vulnerable students are at a great risk of having their anxiety pushed to the breaking point, according to Wylie Tene, public relations manager of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

"That kind of story can contribute to contagions because the person who might be vulnerable might look up to that person," Tene said. "They might think, 'if there's not hope for that person, there's no hope for me.'"

But Tene still strongly believes high schools should cover suicides, to prevent further stigmatization of the issue, an issue that needs to be reported in a very particular way.

Guidelines for reporting on suicides and suicide attempts based on more than 40 years of scientific research, Tene said, can be found on both the AFSP's and the CDC's Web sites.

"Report about suicide," Tene said. "Raising awareness about the issue, about mental illnesses and where people can go to help can be very beneficial. I always look at it as reporting about any other health issue. If it was reporting about AIDS/HIV, you'd want to report information that can help people ... new research treatments, doctor's names, [etcetera], it needs to be the same for suicide."

CDC's "Suicide Contagion and the Reporting of Suicide" recommendations were composed at a national workshop where suicidologists, public health officials, researchers, psychiatrists, psychologists and news media professionals addressed guidelines for reducing the possibility of media-related suicide contagion.

The recommendations and guidelines include aspects of media coverage that can promote suicide contagion, and they portray how to promote prevention through specific types of news coverage.

Assistant Surgeon General of the United States Patrick O'Carroll led the group of professionals who compiled CDC's guidelines for reporting on suicide. He said that while high school journalists should definitely report suicides, adolescents have a tendency to take a dramatic approach to life, making treatment of the coverage a topic that requires a detailed an responsible method.

"You can't not report it because the students are all talking about it," O'Carroll said.

"It's not like they're not aware of it. In a population of students, there is always going to be some sub-population that is going to be disturbed. Our guidance was about how to report responsibly ... despite how it may look, suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. What you want to do is celebrate the person, not the act, and highlight what a tragic decision it was."

The greater goodTo "seek and report truth" is an important aspect to consider in journalism, according to Gene Foreman, former managing editor and vice president of The Philadelphia Inquirer and author of "The Ethical Journalist: Making Responsible Decisions in the Pursuit of News."

The alternative to seeking and reporting the truth is minimizing harm -- sometimes journalists voluntarily make the judgment call to publish less than the full story to reduce harm.

"You don't minimize harm by simply failing to report something that is newsworthy," Foreman said. "You do it by leaving out details that don't need to be told. [Suicide] probably is a big story at schools. Students are talking about it and are interested in it; it would be a mistake to ignore it."

But student newspapers are in a unique position to report on suicide, being so close to what is going on. High school journalists are part of the student community, and have the opportunity to report on what is a very personal issue in a personal, honest way.

"Look at the statistics," Haab said. "They show that it's a very serious problem, and it's also a very tricky problem for high school students and papers to do because it has to be handled very carefully. It's a community problem ... it goes back to home, or social problems or bullying. One of the things that a paper should do is bring these issues out and how do we solve them."

reports, Winter 2009-10