According to the best-practice resource reportingonsuicide.org, “more than 50 research studies worldwide have found that certain types of news coverage can increase the likelihood of suicide in vulnerable individuals.” And the “risk of additional suicides increases when the story explicitly describes the suicide method” and “uses dramatic or graphic headlines.”

Journalists have a responsibility to their readership and our communities when reporting on suicide. We know that more careful and compassionate coverage can help with harm reduction and with getting at-risk individuals the support they need. I don’t doubt that the Portland Press Herald’s editors and reporters care deeply about this subject and have tried to address these issues in your coverage, as have newsrooms across the country.

However, a news story you posted last Saturday morning implied a suicide directly without saying as much, and, by so doing, could affect at-risk members of our community. I’d like to ask that Press Herald leadership re-evaluate your practices for reporting on suicide.

The article in question, headlined “Man dies in jump from Casco Bay Bridge,” gave details about the manner of death (which I will not repeat here) and included a photo of the location, which goes against current best-practice recommendations. You also did not include a link to prevention resources, such as a hotline number. The accompanying Facebook post also included the text “A man died after jumping off the Casco Bay Bridge,” with no prevention resources.

I was kindly informed by a member of your social media staff that the prevention resource was not included because the death had not officially been ruled a suicide as of the article’s filing. I appreciated his response and the explanation, but this article clearly reads as a suicide story, whether or not that had been confirmed yet by law enforcement. In fact, looking only at the post without clicking through, as so many do, a reader basically just saw three references in a row to the man’s jumping and nothing else of the story content.

The most concerning part to me is that, after only two hours on Facebook, the post and headline had been shared 35 times, reaching thousands of eyes across Maine, some of them potentially vulnerable or at risk. And almost all of those shares included no additional commentary or resource information from the users who shared it.

As storytellers or journalists, we have a responsibility not just to the facts, but also to the context in which we present them. “Jumped” as a verb implies action and intention on the part of the subject. In the documentary series “Wormwood,” Errol Morris spends four hours trying to answer this very question, which has consumed the life of a man whose father, authorities claim, “jumped” to his death in the 1950s. I don’t think any reader would agree that the article to which I refer suggested any other cause, such as a car accident or stumble.

Why not use the headline “Man dies after fall from Casco Bay Bridge” and then refrain from further details about the nature of the fall until more information is acquired?

Reporting on suicide is an incredibly difficult task, and I don’t doubt your staff cares deeply about it. And, further, I also understand that you are all personally affected and at risk just by reporting on these difficult stories in your daily work. My heart goes out to you all in these difficult times. I just ask that you review some of your protocols for breaking stories that may eventually be ruled as suicides, so that we can better provide resources and support to members of our Maine community who are struggling. And that is to say nothing of the effect this op-ed and its framing may have on the family of the man who died last Saturday morning, to whom I also send my condolences and love.

 

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