When Suicide News Breaks in Social Media

Can our need for news make us less humane?

Posted Dec 07, 2011

Last week, a Kansas City TV meteorologist died by suicide. I know one person in Kansas City. But, I found out about Don Harman's suicide. On Facebook.

So did many, many people. Via social media including Facebook, Twitter, and blogs, Harman's death became news before it became "news."

There are many good reasons to think critically about how to cover suicide, though the situation was complicated not just because Harman died by suicide. In addition, staff struggled with their own emotions around the death. Also, Harman's home station, Fox 4, wanted to reach Harman's father before making the news public.

What is so interesting to me about this situation is how quickly the public entered into the news cycle. In some ways, the public, by being so vocal on social media, forced the story into the news. In fact, Harman's father couldn't be reached before the story of his son's death went on the air.

From the accounts I read, news directors are still wrestling with the choices they made. Ultimately, as Peggy Phillip, news director at a rival Kansas City station, said, Harman's home station was in "the most difficult position, balancing the public's right to know with their own significant loss."

I love social media, but I know that comprehensive coverage of a public figure's suicide is impossible via those media. If TV news seems built around sound bites, which can make reporting complex stories challenging, consider how hard it is to tell a full story in 140 characters.

Sure, you can post tweet after tweet with a warning sign here, a hotline number there, but it isn't the same as spending time crafting a feature that works to capture the complexity of suicide, both as it has entered news through the death of an individual, and as a public health issue.

I applaud the news directors at the Kansas City stations who confronted this personal, professional, and ethical challenge, particularly stations that aired information about suicide as a public health issue—warning signs, trends, and hotline numbers. Knowing how dearly I hold my weatherman in my heart, I hope that Kansas City heals from this loss, and is able to make something positive out of it. For the rest of us, I hope we're inspired to ask questions about the immediacy of our need for news, our drive to "make" news, and the way that social media helps—or hinders—our humanity.

Copyright 2011 Elana Premack Sandler, All Rights Reserved