Reporting responsibly on suicide and mental illness

Reindeer herding families gather at this corral in northern Sweden to mark their calves. (Camilla Andersen/GroundTruth)

This article originally appeared on Navigator, GroundTruth’s newsletter for early-career journalists. You can subscribe to Navigator here

If you report on a violent crime, you would likely include details on the weapon or cause of death — the how in the who-what-when-where-how of the story. But in cases of suicide, studies have shown that explicit descriptions of the how, and other language choices, can actually contribute to a “contagion effect.”

For this week’s Navigator, we asked Kelly McBride, a media ethicist and the vice president of the Poynter Institute, about the best practices for reporting on suicide — and mental illness in general, which can raise ethical questions around interview consent and perpetuating stereotypes.

“My overall urging to journalists is don’t shy away from these topics, because there is great need in communities to better understand them,” McBride says. “But don’t be naive or careless in your approach either. Be responsible.”

Recommendations for Reporting on Suicide
Poynter’s free webinar on reporting on suicide and mental health conditions
Poynter’s comprehensive resources on reporting on suicide and mental illness
Recommendations for Reporting on Mass Shootings

In any reporting involving mental illness or suicide:

1. Provide context and interview experts

Something that you’ll often see in media coverage of a violent incident or of a suicide is a public official, such as a high school principal or police officer or politician speculating about a person’s mental illness. They generally are not qualified to make that kind of assessment. You’ll want to interview a psychologist or some such expert who can speak more authoritatively to the story you’re covering.

“You find the expert whose qualified to make those statements,” McBride says. “Bringing the principles of fact checking to what sources say about mental health is an overall approach to this. [Ask yourself] How would this hold up in a fact check? And if it won’t hold up, don’t be the conduit or the platform who allows your sources to say that.”

2. Don’t perpetuate the false narrative that people living with a mental illness are violent and dangerous.

“There’s really no good excuse for not bringing solid scientific context [to your reporting],” McBride says.

The majority of media coverage about mental illness occurs when a violent incident occurs, perpetuating the stereotype that people living with a mental illness are dangerous or violent. This kind of breaking news coverage rarely mentions the fact that a very small percent of violent crimes can be traced to the symptoms of a mental illness. Or the fact that one in five adults in the United States lives with a mental illness, and people who are treated for their mental illness are able to be productive members of society.

The Poynter Institute offers a free webinar that suggests more interesting and productive topics around mental illness that reporters can cover.

If you want to do an in-depth story about mental illness in your community, here are some things to consider when interviewing sources who have a serious mental illness:

1. Ask yourself why you’re writing this piece

“We as journalists have an obligation to identify a clear, high journalistic purpose for every piece that we write,” McBride says. “And if you do that it helps you avoid some of the pitfalls. One of the pitfalls in exoticizing or sensationalizing or bringing a prurient interest to people with mental health issues.”

2. Ensure that the subject of your piece is fully consenting to being involved

“You have to make sure that the sources you’re dealing with understand the nature of your story, what your journalistic purpose is, what role they play in helping you achieve that journalistic purpose, and how their name and story will be used,” McBride says. “You as the journalist have an obligation to make sure that they understand that and they are fully consenting to that.”

Sometimes, the subject of your story will not be able to give consent. If that is the case, you cannot have them as a source in your story. “You cannot use people who cannot fully consent [as sources] in your reporting,” McBride says. “There’s just no ethical way to do that.”

Another thing to know is that consent is an ongoing process, and your source can withdraw consent or can become unable to give consent.

“There are other things you can do to assess whether they continue to remain fully capable of consenting,” McBride says. “And one is to assess their support network. When someone has a certain vulnerability in giving consent — if they have a support network, a partner, a parent, a counselor, who are helping them make decisions, that’s always good. That suggests their consent is fully given. If they have an unhealthy support network, they are less likely to be able to give consent themselves.”

Relatedly, you have to be clear about establishing boundaries, so that your source doesn’t feel coerced into giving consent, or feeling unable to withdraw their consent.

McBride explains if you aren’t clear about boundaries, your source may come to believe that by participating in your story, they will receive something in return.

“They are not consenting because they want to help your journalistic purpose, they are consenting because they believe there is going to be some quid pro quo, that you’re going to help them,” McBride said.

3. When reporting about suicide, take care not to contribute to “contagion effect

Reporting that can lead to suicide contagion includes sensational language/headlines to describe a suicide, describing the method by which a person killed himself or herself, or identifying a single reason for the suicide.

“People who are suicidal are not thinking rationally,” McBride explains. “So when they see information that reinforces that suicide is a way to get out of the pain they are in, it becomes a rational choice for them to commit suicide. So you want to avoid playing into that.”

McBride continues: “You shouldn’t make things worse as a journalist. You may not be able to make things better, even though you’re trying, but you shouldn’t make things worse.”

The Recommendations for Reporting on Suicide are an excellent resource and provide guidelines for journalists to report responsibly on suicide.

Finally, always include suicide prevention resources in a story about suicide, as we are doing here.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, a free service, is available 24/7 at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).