DIMON KENDRICK-HOLMES: When we write about suicide

March 8, 2013 

In our most recent Sunday paper, we published a front-page story about a Hardaway teacher who took her own life.

Alert readers noted that the Ledger-Enquirer does not usually cover suicide, and wondered why we wrote about this one.

Good question.

It's true that as a policy we don't report on individual suicides. Why not?

In most cases, people commit suicide alone and away from the public eye, and for surviving family members these deaths become painfully deep personal milestones that change their lives.

There's another big reason we don't report individual suicides: Research has shown that publicizing the suicidal behavior of individuals can influence other people, especially young adults, to commit suicide.

There are exceptions to our policy.

We cover suicides when they are committed by a public figure, or in a public place, or are part of a murder-suicide.

In 2009, we published a story about Donald Walker, the mayor of Warner Robins, who died of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Also in 2009, we wrote about two separate suicides at public firing ranges, but reduced our coverage of the second one.

And nearly every year, somebody in the Chattachoochee Valley commits a murder-suicide. About a month ago, an Army captain shot and killed his fiancée at a storage area and then turned the gun on himself.

We cover these suicides because they cause the public to take notice, to demand details, and to speculate and spread rumors when they don't get accurate information.

At the Ledger-Enquirer, we start each day with blank news pages to fill. On a slow news day, we'll sometimes cover events that we wouldn't otherwise cover. This is sometimes the case when you see a picture of a dog or a road race on the front page.

We'll never cover a suicide because we have nothing else to cover or because we think it will increase our readership.

The same applies to our website, ledger-enquirer.com, and our mobile coverage. You may have noticed that we start the day following a lot of crime news, most of which doesn't reach the print paper. If we're following the discovery of a dead body and believe it's likely a suicide, we won't report the story. If we post the story and it unexpectedly is ruled a suicide, we will say it's a suicide, we won't name the person, and we'll stop pursuing it.

That doesn't mean we don't write about suicide.

For Americans, and for the world, suicide is a critical public health issue. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention list self-inflicted harm as the No. 10 cause of death, ahead of chronic liver disease, hypertensive renal disease and Parkinson's disease.

According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, more than 90 percent of people who die by suicide have a diagnosable and treatable psychiatric disorder.

The Associated Press recently reported that in 2012 military suicides outnumbered combat deaths 349 to 295.

We want our readers to increase their awareness of suicide and what causes it. That's why we decided to write a story about Kathy Honea, the Hardaway teacher.

When we learned of her death in January, we did not write a breaking news story. But when we learned that she was a public school teacher who had sued the Muscogee County School District a month before her death, we started checking out the story.

Reporter Mark Rice began reviewing Honea's lawsuit and, after filing an open records request with the district, her personnel file. He found the impassioned complaints of a teacher and the legal-minded responses of officials.

But as he talked to Honea's family and friends, Rice found something else: That in Honea's case, suicide was the result of many complex factors weighing on someone with mental health problems.

Paula Clayton, the medical director for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, has stated that this is the case with most suicides, and that the media can actually help lower the risk of additional suicides when it reports these factors.

The fact that some of the people in Honea's life were willing to talk about these factors encouraged us to pursue the story.

Because of the complexity of Honea's story, Rice's account in Sunday's Ledger-Enquirer was one of the longest we've had in a while. A common mistake in suicide coverage is oversimplifying the reasons for suicide, and Rice needed the room to examine these reasons.

But you'll notice that the story didn't mention her method of suicide. It also didn't have a dramatic headline or receive the big-story treatment that we usually give lengthy Sunday pieces.

Some people even thought we underplayed the story. This was by design. We didn't want to glamorize or sensationalize Honea's story.

But we felt it was important for our readers to know about it, and I wanted you to know why.

Dimon Kendrick-Holmes, executive editor, dkholmes@ledger-enquirer.com.

Ledger-Enquirer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service