Coverage of Junior Seau’s death was generally responsible and avoided sensationalism, but suicide prevention experts speaking at a recent forum faulted newspapers and broadcast outlets for not doing more to prevent 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 they cited 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?”
U-T San Diego, celebrity site TMZ and Patch posted the report.
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.
This spring, the county Medical Examiner’s Office reported 393 suicides 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.”