Oliver: Debate continues about coverage of suicides

It was in January 1988, as a Daily Northwestern reporter covering the police beat, that I first grappled with how to cover suicides.

A Northwestern sociology major had been found dead on a bench in Evanston. A jogger had discovered the body early that morning. A gun was found in the snow near the body, and a note was found in the student’s room on campus.

The Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office ruled the death a suicide.

As it turned out, I knew 21-year-old Ed Brown, who lived in my dorm. 

To say I was shocked was an understatement. My editors even asked if I’d rather hand off the story.

The Daily Northwestern published my story on the front page, along with a companion article that included interviews with Brown’s friends.

Little did I realize just how controversial that decision would be. 

In the days that followed, just about every journalism class I attended talked about our coverage. My editor-in-chief was called in to one of my classes to talk about where the story was published, whether it should have been reported at all, and what, if anything, we had learned.

All these many years later, it’s a debate we’re still having, even here at the Northwest Herald. It’s one that happens in newsrooms across the country.

Readers from time to time question our coverage of suicides. A recent short story about a 14-year-old girl who was found in a Crystal Lake park is only the latest example.

To be clear, these stories are never easy to cover. They are heartbreaking, no matter whom they involve, but never more so than when they involve children.

As in the case of the suicide at Northwestern, if one takes one’s own life in a public place, we usually will publish at least a short story about it.

Here’s why: If a body is found in a public place, and people see a lot of police activity, they might assume a crime has been committed.

One of our first questions to police is whether a death is a suicide. If it is, a short story will provide just the basic details to let people know what happened. Recent newsroom discussion has included whether we should publish the person’s name.

Of course, if the person is the head of Metra and under investigation, that’s an entirely different situation.

Some readers have questioned why we do not go into the reasons behind most suicides. Often, we do not know them.

Sometimes a family wants to share their story as a means to bring awareness to depression, bullying or some other issue.

We have been able to provide them with that forum, but it’s not our policy to do so without the family’s cooperation or consent.

Unfortunately, no matter what we print – or in some cases do not print – there will be those who disagree, finding that our coverage either is sensationalistic or falls short of the “real story.”

There are no easy answers. Be assured that each suicide brings its own newsroom debate. As well it should.

These stories were hard to do in January 1988. 

They still are today.

• Joan Oliver is the assistant news editor for the Northwest Herald. She can be reached at 815-526-4552 or by email at joliver@shawmedia.com.

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