Rules Emerge for Writing About Suicides

Raveena Aulakh
Toronto Star Reporter Raveena Aulakh died by suicide. Toronto Star photo.

By Casey Bukro

Writing about suicides can make journalists squirm.

In part, it’s because the topic long was considered taboo or loaded with restrictions on the proper course of action. When I was a reporter and editor at the Chicago Tribune, one of the fears was that a story about someone who took his own life might trigger suicidal thoughts in others. A stigma was attached to suicides and it seemed best to avoid being too intrusive for the sake of the family.

These memories flooded back upon reading about the contortions that the Toronto Star staff suffered while trying to honor instructions left by Star reporter Raveena Aulakh, before she ended her life. She was the paper’s global environment reporter.

“Please don’t talk about me. Please don’t let anyone write about me,” she wrote, not even an obituary in the Star. Her family expressed similar wishes and the Star wanted to respect them.

But the Star could not. An investigation revealed that Aulakh was distraught over a broken relationship with her senior editor. She also revealed in emails that the senior editor was having a relationship with the Star’s female managing editor. Both lost their newsroom jobs. One left the newspaper.

“I have worked in newsrooms for 40 years and have never seen anything like the level of grief and anger exploding here,” wrote Kathy English, the Star’s public editor. Aside from the action taken against the two managers, newspaper officials said they will strengthen company policies on workplace relationships and conflicts of interest.

The newspaper’s union said those actions do not go far enough. It wants a third-party investigation into workplace health and safety and harassment issues. A union bulletin said: “It is important to note that a significant amount of unconfirmed speculation is swirling about.”

Public editor English said she regrets writing about Aulakh’s death contrary to her wishes.

“This tragedy should not be a public spectacle and I wish it had not come to this,” English wrote. “Certainly, serious mistakes of a personal nature have been made, and relatively quick and serious action taken by the Star as a result. But, sadly, too much here has spiraled out of control and in making this reporter’s death ‘news’ in the interests of the ‘transparency’ today’s journalism seems to always demand we are all doing exactly what Reveena, 42, implored against.”

Don’t call suicide “successful” or attempted suicide “unsuccessful.” Death is not a matter of success.

Under its policy on suicides, the Star avoids reporting about the death unless some overriding public interest dictates otherwise. That was the case in Aulakh’s death.

Bob Collins, a blogger with Minnesota Public Radio, also commented.

Even these hidebound customs change over time, as new ideas emerge on the right thing to do when considering suicide a mental health issue, not a taboo.

Public Editor English called attention to “Mindset,” a guide to reporting on mental health written by Canadian journalists. The principles of making journalism better apply as much in the United States as they do in Canada. Suicide is a serious problem in both countries, although rates are rising in the United States and fairly constant in Canada.

The Mindset website includes a field guide for journalists that suggests some of these pointers:

  • Do consider whether this particular death is newsworthy.
  • Do respect the privacy and grief of family or other “survivors.”
  • Do include reference to their suffering.
  • Do tell others considering suicide how they can get help.
  • Do use plain words. Say the person “died by suicide,” “killed herself” or “took his own life.”
  • Don’t say the person “committed suicide.” It’s an outdated phrase implying illegality or moral failing.
  • Don’t call suicide “successful” or attempted suicide “unsuccessful.” Death is not a matter of success.
  • Don’t shy away from writing about suicide. The more taboo, the more the myth.
  • Don’t jump to conclusions. The reasons people kill themselves are usually complex.
  • Don’t suggest that nothing can be done because we usually never know why people kill themselves.
  • Don’t go into details about the method used.

Suicide is not mentioned in the Society of Professional Journalists ethics code. It should be.

The Associated Press Stylebook has an entry on suicide. It says:
Generally, AP does not cover suicides or suicide attempts, unless the person involved is a well-known figure or the circumstances are particularly unusual or publicly disruptive. Suicide stories, when written, should not go into detail on methods used.
Avoid using committed suicide except in direct quotations from authorities. Alternate phrases include killed himselftook her own life or died by suicide. The verb commit with suicide can imply a criminal act. Laws against suicide have been repealed in the United States and many other places.
Do not refer to an unsuccessful suicide attempt. Refer instead to an attempted suicide.
Medically assisted suicide is permitted in some states and countries. Advocacy groups call it death with dignity, but AP doesn’t use that phrase on its own. When referring to legislation whose name includes death with dignity or similar terms, just say the law allows the terminally ill to end their own lives unless the name itself of the legislation is at issue.

Suicide is increasingly a major problem in the United States. The New York Times early this year reported that suicide has surged to the highest levels in nearly 30 years, with increases in every age group except older adults. The rise was especially steep for women.

The overall suicide rate rose by 24 percent from 1999 to 2014, according the National Center for Health Statistics. The center found that the males frequently used firearms, while women used poison, to kill themselves. Suicide is increasing, said the center, against a background of generally declining deaths from other causes

In all, 42,773 people died from suicide in 2014, compared with 29,199 in 1999.

Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S.

Suicide is the ninth leading cause of death in Canada of all ages and the second biggest killer of adolescents between ages 15 and 19. Statistics indicate a strong but not universal connection between suicide and mental illness. Studies there suggest that adolescents in particular may be susceptible to “suicide contagion.”

The cause of her death is no great mystery. It was heartbreak, an affliction many have suffered.

Hanging is the most common method of suicide in Canada. Poisoning, including overdoses, is the second most common. Suicide by gunshot increases with age.

Canadian suicide prevention experts now advocate open discussion and do not oppose sensitive reporting of newsworthy deaths by suicide.

“This is especially important in the age of social media, when false information and rumor may be rampant,” said Mindset.

In light of this more enlightened information about reporting suicide deaths, let’s reconsider the instructions from Raveena Aulakh to keep her death a secret. There is some arrogance in that. The cause of her death is no great mystery. It was heartbreak, an affliction many have suffered.

Aulakh seemed to think she was above the news, that the news should not do what she probably had done to others. Most journalists at some time in their careers write obits. She probably wrote a few in her time.

She was a journalist and should have known better than to try to manipulate the media. And she was putting the onus on her friends to keep her secret. It is more than she should have asked of friends in the news business, all of whom were affected by the results of her actions. It was unfair to ask them to cover up for her and put that burden on them.

The more the Star knows about her affair, the better it will be for the organization she left in emotional shambles. Corrections are being made that in the long run will benefit everyone on the staff.

Death is news. A person’s death is not a loss only to family and friends, but to the community and sometimes to the world. Reputation is based not only on what we think of ourselves, but on what others think of us. It is a legacy, a reckoning.

Media generally do not keep secrets. This belongs in the list of things to do in suicides: Tell the whole story, warts and all. Aulakh’s death makes more sense when you hear the whole story. It’s not a happy story, but it’s a story that does explain why a suicide can happen. And making sense is a step in the right direction.

Edited by Stephen Rynkiewicz. Comment below in the “Leave a Reply” box. For advice from our ethics advisers,  submit a question.

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