Wednesday, August 13, 2008

How not to report on a suicide

It's an horrific story. A 40-year-old father, with his 3-year-old girl strapped safely in a car seat and some other adults in the SUV, is driving along the road near Rosedale, BC. Suddenly, another vehicle slams into the SUV, and the little girl's daddy is dead. The vehicle that hit them is driven by a suicidal, brain-damaged man who accomplishes what he was out to do -- kill himself.

So what does the Vancouver Sun focus on in the reporting? The background of the suicidal man. The fact that he'd suffered a brain injury a few years ago and hadn't been the same since. The fact that his sister had been murdered near the same spot as the crash happened. Nothing about the little girl whose daddy was snatched away.

I was a reporter/broadcaster for 25 years, and never did feel comfortable with the knee-jerk "we don't report suicides" mantra that newsrooms fall into whenever someone does him or herself in. The reasoning has always been "it's a terrible personal tragedy for the family involved" or "it might lead to copy-cats". But I believe that an examination of the factors leading to the suicide -- breakdown in the mental health system, discussion of warning signs parents and friends could look for, etc. -- is much more in the public interest than dissecting the latest gang murder or (now I step into the grounds of treason) the latest breathless pronouncement about the 2010 Olympics.

For example, a suicide back in the mid-90s in Victoria led to a coroner's inquest, which led to the exposure and repair of some serious flaws in the mental health system, helping save countless other lives. Problem was, as reporters, we had to begin by making reference to an incident, which had been noted by many people (as in, "Why are police cars and an ambulance outside the View Street Parkade -- and why is View Street blocked off?") but which we didn't report because of that "no suicide" mantra.

But I digress. The Sun's reportage makes for reading that could have inspired F. Scott Fitzgerald to write Gatsby II, but still doesn't go into the public-interest topics: boring stuff like, what kind of treatment was this guy getting? Why was he allowed behind the wheel of a motor vehicle? No, rehashing a 1977 murder (without, you'll notice, mentioning whether the killer is still doing time) is much more entertaining.

Katie Webb wrote an excellent piece for The Province about suicides, and if I can find the link, I'll add it. The four-page special report definitely was in the public interest. We talked about it, because she called me at TransLink to ask about suicide prevention barriers on any of the bridges under our aegis. The Golden Ears Bridge will have a barrier, required under its environmental assessment certificate ("environmental assessment" includes "social environment", in case you're wondering); the Pattullo does not, although its replacement may.

Now, I've questioned the "copy-cat" theory, and at one time, asked the then Regional Coroner for Southern Vancouver Island if she had ever returned a finding in a suicide which indicated that the subject had decided to end it all because he or she had been inspired by a media report. She said "no", but Katie's research has found that there does appear to be a "spike" in incidents of a certain nature when one particular incident is made public.

As it turned out, within days of the publication of Katie's report, a woman decided to sit on the Ironworkers Memorial Bridge, causing police to close the bridge in both directions for six hours while they talked her out of it (creating a gridlock situation that was not helped when a car crash closed Lions Gate Bridge during that time). Last week, a man climbed to the top of the Pattullo and sat there until police talked him down (having closed the bridge first), and yesterday (Tuesday), a man was arrested while walking down the middle of one of the lanes on the Pattullo with a rock in each hand. Maybe there's something to the "copy-cat" theory, after all.

But to return to the main point, The Sun did itself and us no favors with its angle on the Rosedale murder-suicide. Reporting should give the reader something to "take away" - something to make us think and examine our own lives and those of the ones around us. All we got was some brutal titillation, and a form of justification for someone who destroyed a number of innocent lives while ending his own.

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