Should We Report on Spade and Bourdain Suicides?

Suicide reportage is a gray area in journalism

Posted Jun 08, 2018

This week was hard for fans of pop culture everywhere. In short order, fashion designer Kate Spade and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain hanged themselves. Both of these stars were not only wildly successful but apparently troubled, too. As with physical and mental illness, suicide doesn’t discriminate.

Reportage on suicide has always been a murky endeavor for journalists. The website Reporting on Suicide—which partners with Poynter, the Ad Council, and Columbia University Department of Psychiatry, among others—recommends the following:

Media and online coverage of suicide should be informed by using best practices. Some suicide deaths may be newsworthy. However, the way media cover suicide can influence behavior negatively by contributing to contagion, or positively by encouraging help-seeking. 

Here’s what the Society of Professional Journalists has to say about reporting on suicide: “Be cautious about reporting suicides that do not involve a public person or a public place.”

Both bits of guidance leave a lot to interpretation.

Source: TEA/123RF

Both Spade and Bourdain were public figures, which despite objections otherwise, probably makes reporting on their suicides fair game for journalists. Now, if these people were private citizens, reporting on their suicides would make less sense.

Considering that both these celebrities lived in the public eye, if a professional journalist didn’t cover their deaths in a responsible way, it’s inevitable that some members of the public would report on these deaths in a fashion that could lack sensitivity, verification, or editorial oversight—especially in this age of Moore’s Law when things can make their way online in seconds.

As far as "contagion" goes, researchers have shown that some types of reporting can increase the risk of suicide in prone individuals. This increase depends on the amount, duration, and prominence of the coverage.

Once again, according the website Reporting on Suicide:

Risk of additional suicides increases when the story explicitly describes the suicide method, uses dramatic/graphic headlines or images, and repeated/extensive coverage sensationalizes or glamorizes a death. ​Suicide Contagion, or 'Copycat Suicide,' occurs when one or more suicides are reported in a way that contributes to another suicide.

Suicide is an epidemic and a huge public health problem. In 2013, there were 41,149 suicides in the United States, and it was the tenth leading cause of death, according to the CDC. Although suicidal behavior is complex and mutifactorial—it’s highly unlikely that reportage alone could result in this unfortunate act—it’s very possible that reporting can serve as a stressor.

Case in point: Bourdain discussed suicide candidly before he died. He killed himself 3 days after Kate Spade and in the same fashion, by hanging. It’s very possible that he knew of Spade’s death and was somehow influenced by it.

But just as reports of suicide may incline a vulnerable person to commit the act, these reports can also bring light to the issue of suicide and encourage a person to seek help. If a person’s favorite celebrity commits suicide, this tragedy may serve as motivation to avoid the same fate.

The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, which is a project of the Columbia Journalism School, makes the following recommendations to reporters intent on covering suicide:

  • Focus on the issue and don’t be sensational;
  • Be sensitive when approaching the suicide and sources close to the victim;
  • Be proactive and raise awareness by shedding light on prevention and intervention;
  • Consider everything in context;
  • Be coherent and interview a variety of sources, such as psychiatrists, public health experts, counselors, advocacy groups, and so forth;
  • Ask sources for input on what photos are used and don’t make sources uncomfortable with relentless questioning;
  • Don’t publish photos of the location or method of suicide;
  • Don’t pass judgment or call suicide a “crime”;
  • Classify suicide as a public health issue and provide the reader with resources such as links to prevention hotlines and support groups;
  • Work with an editor and other journalists to report responsibly;
  • Focus on recovery and hope and don’t wallow on death.

The guidance provided in this posting is not enforced in any formal way. It would be ideal that every journalist closely consider these points before reporting on suicide, but this is not always the case. It’s likely that some journalists realize the potential for a story on celebrity suicide to go viral and reach millions of readers—especially in the immediate aftermath of the event. Nonetheless, it’s important that journalists (and editors) realize that a "scoop" is worth neither compromising one’s sense of humanity nor possibly putting the reader in danger. Victims of suicide deserve respect and compassion not only for themselves but also for the loved ones who they leave behind.

If you’re contemplating suicide, please know that there is help and hope out there. You are not alone. A good place to start the process of healing is the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, where 24-hour help is only a phone call away: 1-800-273-8255.