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Coverage of Junior Seau Suicide Exposed Media Flaws, Experts Say

Outlets are urged to routinely list warning signs and crisis-line numbers, and focus on prevention.

Coverage of Junior Seau’s death was generally responsible and avoided sensationalism, but suicide prevention experts speaking at a forum Thursday night faulted newspapers and broadcast outlets for not doing more to prevent contagion—copycat incidents.

“No other topic you cover has the capability to cause additional deaths,” Anara Guard told almost 90 people at the county Office of Education complex in Linda Vista.

But Guard, senior project director with Education Development Center, told an audience of mostly professional journalists and journalism students: “I think you handled this high-profile event very well.”

A five-member panel—along with moderator Kenny Goldberg, a reporter for public-radio station KPBS—discussed do’s and don’ts of suicide reporting amid Suicide Prevention Week.

The experts urged reporters not to suggest a single precipitating cause or go into detail on the suicide method, saying “handgun” is OK but references to a specific caliber Smith & Wesson could trigger more deaths.

Newspapers wouldn’t run a headline saying “Job loss causes man to die of heart attack,” experts said, noting that they’d ask about underlying conditions and other factors. “But we’re seeing headlines that [a given event] caused a suicide.”

There's “no neat little bow to tie” around suicides, which can have many causes, the audience was told at the Joe Rindone Regional Technology Center.

Loud headlines and prominent placement are among factors that spur contagion, Guard said, pointing to 50 studies support this theory.

She said suicide is “inherently dramatic. You don’t need to turn [the volume] up.”

Experts on the panel urged media to include suicide warning signs in their stories as well as phone numbers of crisis lines.

An example of contagion was Marilyn Monroe’s 1962 suicide—amplified by screaming headlines and vivid details on her death. It led to about 200 copycat suicides within a month, especially among women in the same age group and using the same method, the panel said.

In the Seau case, Guard criticized media outlets for posting the autopsy report, which contained details on how he killed himself and other specifics.

“Why would you do that?” she asked. “What was the public good?”

Laura Wingard, public-safety editor of U-T San Diego, said she opposed the autopsy report’s posting on her paper’s website but noted that a newsroom debate—which pointed to its presence on TMZ—led to a decision to make it available.  Patch also posted the report.

 “It’s not us to tell journalists how to do their job, but to provide guidance,” said Guard, who distributed a cheat sheet on “responsible reporting” on suicide designed by experts, organizations and journalism groups.

A Patch editor pointed out that police and others in law enforcement share details of suicides that don’t reflect the advice of public health agencies.

Holly Salazar of Community Health Improvement Partners, who helped organize Thursday’s event, said a similar forum would be held for public-information officers of local agencies.

A six-month survey of 200 suicide reports in California newspapers and broadcast outlets was summarized by Theresa Ly, a colleague of Guard and a suicide prevention program specialist. She said it revealed too few outlets noted how people could get help.

It was noted that the National Football League has launched a suicide-prevention effort at nflifeline.org, which got far less coverage than the original Seau suicide.

Channel 10 managing editor J.W. August, president of the host San Diego chapter of Society of Professional Journalists, said that when he started in the industry more than 30 years ago, “we didn’t report suicides.”

But in the wake of high-profile events including the May suicide of the former Chargers great, “it’s an issue that we can’t hide from anywhere.”

This spring, the county Medical Examiner’s Office were recorded in 2011—the highest number in 23 years.

So prevention stories are key, experts said at the 100-minute forum.

“When bad weather is on the horizon, it’s routine to give prevention information,” Guard said. “That’s what we want the media to do when it comes to suicide.”

The event, which included a free buffet dinner, was sponsored by the Suicide Prevention Council through a contract with the county Health and Human Services Agency, with funding from the Mental Health Services Act approved by voters in 2004.

Paula Hall September 15, 2012 at 05:03 PM
It may seem like it, but since we never hear about all the other suicides that happen almost daily how can their assumptions be correct? it is still a case if stifling all the information & continuing the stigma of those who battle with severe depression. Someone who is going that way will find a way to carry it out and media isn't going to stop it or make it easier.
Che Hernandez September 16, 2012 at 05:48 AM
"Experts on the panel urged media to include suicide warning signs in their stories as well as phone numbers of crisis lines." Yes, this one of the important takeaways, and I invite everyone reading this comment, to call for yourself when in crisis and/or be a lifeline for someone else in crisis. Program these life saving numbers into your phones today, and live a long fulfilled happy life. Access and Crisis Line at 1-888-724-7240 National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255
Ken Stone September 17, 2012 at 08:28 PM
San Diego County has posted its own report on the suicide-prevention workshop: http://www.countynewscenter.com/news/local-media-encouraged-cover-suicide-responsibly
Ken Stone September 18, 2012 at 11:27 PM
Webcast of Sept. 13 event and other materials related to seminar are posted here: http://www.sdchip.org/committee/spc-sub-committees/responsible-reporting-on-suicide.aspx

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