After 40 years in the newspaper business, I’ve become accustomed to crickets. As in hearing nothing but crickets after writing something I had hoped would generate comments from readers.
So in a recent column, my expectations were low when I asked readers to e-mail me their thoughts. It was a column in which I shared the reluctance of newspapers to write about people who die from suicide, unless the suicide is done in a public place or by a public figure. I shared the story from ECM’s Forest Lake Times about Sean and Katie Haines of Wyoming, who had sponsored a fund-raiser for suicide-prevention in honor of their daughter, Alissa, who had taken her life in December. Sean and Katie are creating a non-profit that will raise money and encourage discussion of suicide rather than avoidance.
Since the column ran in several of our ECM papers, my e-mail box has been filled with comments from people who think that avoiding the subject is wrong.
John Babcock, chairman of the Bank of Elk River, read the column in our Elk River Star News. He wrote: “I grew up with the idea…that suicide was something ‘normal’ people just can’t understand; so why discuss it? The other troubling concept that was prevalent in my experience was that there was a stigma attached to it and shame involved. I think open and frank dialogue will go a long way to erasing some of the old cultural norms that surrounded suicide for too long.”
Angie King of St. Louis Park posted a comment on the Star News website questioning the wisdom of ECM’s policy that generally discourages coverage of suicide attempts.
“Suicide is a real danger to the youth and adults in our communities,” she wrote. “We need to spread awareness so that everyone has the tools to identify when someone needs help, and to encourage those thinking about suicide to seek help. We need to make it clear that diseases of the mind are just as dangerous and require the same expedient care and treatment as cancer or heart disease.”
Lisa Silbernagel of Rosemount and Andy Alt of Lakeville read the column in our Sun Thisweek newspapers in Dakota County. They argued that we should talk – and write – more about suicide.
Silbernagel said when her brother, Bryan Silbernagel, took his life in 2009, the family wanted the obituary to say he died from suicide, but the local newspaper removed that fact.
She wrote: “We wanted the real reason for death written in the newspaper because we thought that it was about time that the subject be confronted.”
Alt echoed that opinion in a posting on Sunthisweek.com in which he wrote that his father died from suicide in 1981, which he believes contributed to his own struggle with depression.
“There were a lot of factors other than my father’s suicide that contributed to my formative years being not-so-well formed, but I’d have to say the origin of the ‘unstable childhood development’ would have had to been his suicide,” Alt wrote. “And it’s a very misunderstood subject, and the best thing to do with confusing subjects is talk about them.”
Don Heinzman, a columnist and editorial writer for ECM, has been working for years on news coverage policies. Don is a member of our editorial board and our company’s board of directors. He sent along the ECM policy on suicide coverage and said he thinks it’s the best way to handle this difficult subject.
The policy reads, in part: “Reporting of suicides requires greater sensitivity than deaths due to other unnatural causes such as drowning or murder. Suicides should be reported when involving prominent public areas or public figures.”
Larry Werner is director of news for ECM Publishers. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.