The Ethics of Reporting Suicide
By Priscilla Thompson
Shortly after noon on Dec. 7, 2015, Priscilla Azore’s red Jeep crept up the dusty brown gravel road that lines the water at the Texas City Dike. Out of the corner of her eye, she spotted something familiar, a dark purple Mazda 3 that sat parked on the side of the road.
Her heart began to race. Quickly, she shifted the Jeep into park and hopped out, slamming the door behind her. She ran up to the driver’s side of the car parked alongside the road and peered into the lightly tinted window. There she was–her 19-year-old daughter whom she had spent all morning looking for. In her daughter’s lap, entangled in her fingers, adorned with worn fingernail polish lightly chipping away, lay the cool dark metal of a handgun.
Before long the police arrived. The medical examiner placed a white sheet over the body and began to remove her from the car.
“These big waves began to hit the rocks as they took her away and this sense of peace just began to come over me.” Azore said. “It was like she knew we had her now.” After an endless night spent waiting for a call back from her youngest daughter and a frantic morning of searching, the girl was finally back with her family. For Azore, this realization brought peace.
By the next morning, the peace of that moment had quickly faded as a hyper-local news outlet began reporting on her daughter’s death. The “breaking news” Facebook post, of 47-words, referred to her daughter as a “female body in car” and reported incorrectly that a fisherman had found the teen. The post prompts readers to “tune in for more development on this story.” Those developments never came.
The news site did not respond to requests for comment. The post remains on the G-Country TV 24-Hrs News Facebook page. It sparks a memory that still haunts Azore.
“That moment on the water, was one of the last moments that I had with my daughter physically on this earth.” Azore said. “That article splattered across her Facebook page took that from me.”
Community members and friends of Azore’s daughter shared the article more than 300 times. They knew who the unidentified woman was. Requests for more information quickly flooded in, with no further updates from the news outlet, people looked to the family for answers.
Priscilla Azore is not alone. Each year more than 40,000 families in the United States lose a loved one to suicide. News outlets only cover a fraction of suicides.
Often, news outlets label suicides as private matters and defer to families on coverage, a choice that may cause more harm than good. According to Bruce Shapiro, the executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, a project of Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
“Too often, the ethical decision about what we do about suicide get’s put narrowly on family feelings.” Shapiro said. “It’s a public health issue, a really significant one.”
“How do we tell the stories of people who are not normally in the news, but who’s lives are marked by some of the most profound things that this country has to deal with?”
This is a question, novice journalist, Emilie Ruscoe found herself asking last summer when she reported on her first suicide, the death of Faigy Mayer, who jumped from a rooftop bar in New York City.
“She had this identity as a web developer that was very visible and easy for us to find,” Ruscoe said. “I didn’t want to leave the details about this woman’s life out of the story, if I could confirm them. Those make the story that much more compelling.”
However, Ruscoe says building the story out beyond what was listed in the police report proved difficult. She recalls a phone call she made to Mayer’s family.
“The woman was really clear,” Ruscoe said. “She said do not call this number again and hung up on me.”
Shapiro say’s this reaction from families is not uncommon.
“Journalists have never really be trained in how to talk to people about loss and how to make people collaborators in stories about difficult things rather than saying, I’m going to go in and get a quote and write a story,” Shapiro said. “That’s about taking.”
“In reporting on trauma you are giving power back to people who have had their power or authority taken in some type of way. Sometimes one of the points of tension between a reporter and a family or between families and the press is the only thing families have left to control in a way is the story.”
This is a sentiment New York reporter Caroline Pichardo understands well. In January, she reported on a Washington Heights woman who jumped to her death from the George Washington Bridge.
“To this day that’s one of the stories I always go back and kind of wish I hadn’t written.” Pichardo said. “There are families that have to deal with this afterward, and we work in online and digital. It’s not a newspaper where you can just ditch it. These types of reports are the last things that might remain of someone’s loved one.”
For Shapiro, this sentiment makes reporting on suicides all the more important.
“On an issue of such fundamental importance to public health and such fundamental importance to the families involved as suicide, I think we have an obligation to help news consumers think and understand issues that our minds resist thinking and understanding,” Shapiro said.
“None of us want to spend too much time on the subject, it’s a very threatening issue. We contain it, we shut it down, we do as little as possible to think about it. Part of the job of journalism is to help us think more about it.”
“Reporting on someone is a way of saying you’re not alone. Reporting on someone is a way of saying your issues are connected with other people’s issues,” Shapiro said. “Whether it’s suicide attempters or survivor families, journalism has an opportunity to connect people.”
For Priscilla Azore, who discovered her daughter’s body along the Texas dike, his was an opportunity missed in the case of her daughter’s suicide.
“These were her friends— kids, sharing this article on Facebook. I went from reading comments about how much they loved and missed her to everyone sharing an article about how she died.” Azore said. “That article defiled my final moments with my child. I’ve never felt more alone.”