September 19th, 2011 | University

For Our Readers: Covering a suicide

This is the fourth installment of “For Our Readers,” an online column written by the editors of News for the benefit of, well, our readers. Exploring issues of campus and city journalism, the column will aim to shed light on the decisions we make every night at 202 York St., answer your questions about our coverage and respond to reader concerns about accuracy and fairness. Submit questions, concerns and ideas for future columns to editor@yaledailynews.com.

When News reporters and editors woke to the news that someone — possibly a Yale employee — had fallen or jumped from the top story of Hendrie Hall Thursday morning, the first questions to arise were the natural ones. Who was he? Why had he jumped — and had he jumped, or fallen? From what height? Was it a suicide? Was he pronounced dead on the scene, or did he die in the hospital?

These are the types of questions that snag the curiosity of every person who hears of a death like that of Yale School of Music staffer John Miller MUS ’07: the gruesome ones, the dramatic ones. Most of them deserve an answer, and throughout that day we attempted to provide those answers, balancing readers’ appetite for information with the need to thoroughly vet that information. (It would have been easy, for instance, to call the death a suicide based on the evidence on the scene, including physical traces of the tragedy and the murmurings of Yale employees who worked in the building, but we waited until a Yale spokeswoman notified us that the University was investigating an “apparent suicide.” It would have been easy to identify the man as a Yale staffer based on multiple interviews of passerby and gawkers, but we waited until we had confirmation from a reliable, official source.)

But they were not the most important questions.

As a community newspaper, we serve a different purpose than a major metropolitan daily does. When a member of that community dies, our duty is not to focus on the dramatic details, but on the loss that death represents for the community and, by extension, the process of grieving and recovering. So we strove to cover not only the fact of John Miller’s death, but to treat it sensitively and acknowledge the effect his death would have at Yale and in the New Haven Public Schools.

In doing so, we followed guidelines such as those described by Cornell Sun public editor Rob Tricchinelli:

Sensitivity is important, but so is walking that line. There are stories to be told in light of such tragedies, and reporters cannot shy away from approaching grieving people. Reporters should ask questions carefully and sympathetically, not bluntly. Reporters should apologize for inadvertent insensitivity and respect the needs of their sources. People relate to other people, not to ink on a page; as such, sources’ comfort level should be respected so that the best story is told.

And it is tempting for reporters — young ones especially — to get carried away with dramatic and possibly prurient details, but I think the words of one news-writing book are especially relevant: “In sensitive areas, the whisper speaks louder than the shout.” Death is terrible, and it can frighten even the hardiest individuals; grisly details are the enemy. Annually, Gannett gives Sun editors a guide to “Safe Reporting on Suicide,” and Stratford said the editors encourage familiarity with it. The guide, printed by the Massachusetts-based Suicide Prevention Resource Center, is useful in delineating appropriate boundaries.

We also followed industry-standard suicide reporting guidelines that aim to prevent “copycat suicides.” These guidelines caution news organizations against printing photographs of suicide locations or details of the method of suicide. We refrained from printing a photograph of the sealed-off Hendrie Hall or describing the nature of the suicide to minimize sensationalism, choosing instead to feature Miller’s obituary prominently on the front page.

And finally, we wanted to make sure that our stories were accompanied by information about Yale’s mental health counseling resources. As one set of Poynter Institute guidelines says, “suicide coverage is an opportunity to provide the public with information and resources that could save lives.”