Public Editor

Readers' thoughts about The Star and KansasCity.com

Sensitivity with suicide in the death of Robin Williams

08/17/2014 10:00 AM

08/17/2014 4:53 PM

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is one of the top 10 causes of death in the United States. And The Kansas City Star doesn’t usually report on it.

That’s the right policy. Nobody expects journalists to write about private individuals’ deaths from heart disease or accidents in the home, and a suicide is really no different. Unless it happens in an especially public place or there is some highly unusual element that elevates it to a public concern, it isn’t news.

While suicide usually takes a heavy toll on the loved ones left behind, survivors’ grief is intensely private. But it’s an altogether different story when the person is a celebrity.

When news broke last Monday that actor and comedian Robin Williams had taken his own life broke, the reaction in all media was obviously swift and immense. It was the top story on KansasCity.com for much of that day. A photo of Williams ran at the top of Page A1 in the print edition the next day, pointing to a story inside on Page A-2.

Obviously, the untimely death of a massively popular international celebrity is newsworthy, and I didn’t hear a single voice criticizing the fact that The Star covered the story. I would have been surprised if I did.

However, I did hear from many people who objected to multiple reports over the past week that have given specific details about how Williams committed the act.

I thought this comment from a poster on The Star’s Facebook page was especially good:

When reporting a story about suicide please do so responsibly. Don’t disclose method of suicide. It hurts the surviving family and friends to hear the details over and over again. It serves as a trigger (emotional) to those who have lost a loved one to suicide. It serves as a trigger for those who may be having suicidal thoughts. Their minds are already vulnerable. Hearing how the person committed suicide could be enough of a trigger for them to follow thru with their suicidal thoughts.

And finally, don’t report on a story about suicide without also including resources such as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Report responsibly.

One aspect of the reporting that readers singled out as inappropriate was actually my own fault. I manage The Star’s social media, and I shared a story on Facebook that used a photo of Williams mugging for the camera as he stuck his grinning face out from behind a set of curtains.

“Terrible photo,” wrote one poster. “Horrible taste,” said another.

The photo, which was sent by the Associated Press to accompany the story, is typical of many shot throughout Williams’ long comedy career. It didn’t occur to me that readers might find its levity clashed with the seriousness of the news. I could have overridden it with a more serious shot — and I clearly should have.

We are all understandably curious about the personal tragedy of suicide. News reports must always err on the side of sensitivity to those left behind, and to those who are vulnerable. Too much detail can easily veer into the realm of the excessive and prurient.

To reach Derek Donovan, call 816-234-4487 or send email to publiceditor@kcstar.com.

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