Suicide and suicide-related behaviors can be newsworthy topics. But how those stories are shared makes a difference in how others in the community view and respond to suicide.
We helped to shine light on this topic when we designed and planned a communications conference for news media and spokespeople.
Mental Health America of North Dakota and partner agencies wanted to erase the stigma around suicide, while increasing the likelihood that vulnerable individuals would seek help after viewing or reading a story about suicide.
To address this issue, they received a grant to hold a communications summit for news media and organizational spokespeople. They asked Reach Partners to join the summit’s planning committee and to oversee details of the conference, which was held in both Fargo and Bismarck.
“It was an honor to do this,” says Anita Hoffarth, co-owner of Reach Partners. “We were a key part of the committee.”
The group invited Daniel J. Reidenberg, executive director of S.A.V.E. (Suicide Awareness Voices of Education), to share best practices in reporting on suicide. In addition, a panel of survivors of suicide loss shared their personal experiences. They spoke about what it was like to be interviewed by members of the media and how the language and headlines used affected their families.
Sixty-five members of the media, public information officers, law enforcement and educators attended the conference. Conference planners assembled educational resources to distribute to those who had been invited but couldn’t attend.
During the half-day event, attendees learned more about suicide and how reporting and messaging could make a difference in whether viewers and readers would consider suicide or seek help.
One best practice shared was to no longer use the phrase “commit suicide” since the verb suggests the person conducted a crime. Instead reporters were encouraged to say “died by suicide.”
In a post-conference evaluation, 100 percent of the attendees said they were likely to use the information presented the next time they had to report on a suicide.
“I learned a lot of useful things and important considerations for my stories in the future. Thanks!” wrote one attendee.
Local news reports began to reflect many of the best practices shared at the summit – and journalists continue to be more responsible in their reports.
“I’ve even become more careful in how I talk about suicide and share with others what I learned,” Anita says.