Suicide coverage solid, but it overreached
Sun., Jan. 23, 2005
Skyler Cullitan’s suicide in mid-December has changed his family forever. His school community now thinks and acts differently. All who knew him have had something ripped, inexplicably, out of their lives.
For a while, Skyler was in the same class as my son, at Saint George’s School. While I didn’t know him well, I remember him as the buoyant, cheerful boy captured in his photo that appeared in the Dec. 11 story telling of his last day with us.
Many of you believe that the paper’s coverage of this story compounded the tragedy and added to the anguish of those most immediately affected by Skyler’s death. If you’re in that category, and you disagree with my comments that follow, please know the last thing I want to do is add to your hurt. But it’s because of that hurt that some questions need to be asked. As we do so, two principles by which ethical journalism can be measured should guide us: truth telling, or simply “telling the story,” and humaneness.
Should this story have been covered? Even those most critical of the paper, with whom I’ve spoken, agree this story should have appeared. Their concerns flow from how the story was treated. Some readers fear that any reporting of a teen suicide could lead to copycat acts, a concern supported by research.
But while people of good will could argue on how much space a story like this should receive, this story had to be told. Given that reality, I didn’t think the coverage irresponsibly heightened the chances of copycat acts.
Should it have been on the front page? Yes, for the reasons that Editor Steve Smith gave in his “Ask the Editors” column. The significance of the story and its impact, the public setting and the context of our living in the post-Columbine era made this a major story in Spokane.
Were the initial and follow-up stories accurate? For the most part, yes. In fact, the reporters working on the initial stories obtained a remarkable amount of detailed information in a short time. The paper misstated the name of Skyler’s mother, but later corrected that. There was also confusion about his age. But Michael Green, the superintendent at the Nine Mile Falls School District, generally had no quarrel with the accuracy of the coverage.
Should Skyler have been identified in the story? Yes. Green and I disagree here. It’s essential that any news story be as factually complete as the law, good taste and available information permit. The paper’s policy is normally not to identify or run photos of persons who take their own lives. This instance, given its public setting, was dramatically different, and it was important to provide readers (especially in the school district itself) with complete information.
Educators rightly have a strong impetus toward protecting student privacy, but the significance of this story changed that.
Did the paper treat this story with as much sensitivity as it could have? No. To start with, the headline was larger and more dramatic than necessary. In retrospect, Editor Steve Smith agrees it was overdone. This story needed to be told, not yelled.
Next, I think the paper crossed the line in publishing information from Skyler’s online Web site – not because this was private; anything on the Web is public information. Rather, the problem was the attempt to use this information to explain his motives. That was the most significant weakness in the paper’s coverage.
Peggy McEwen, a school counselor at Gonzaga Prep, said “the paper was trying to make sense of this, and you can’t.” I agree. It’s understandable for the paper to want to provide explanations for a tragedy like this, yet answering “why” questions is inordinately difficult. Trying to play the role of psychoanalysts, for which typical reporters have no training, and for something as complex as the motives that would lead someone to take his own life, takes one into dangerous territory. To do so under tight deadline pressure simply aggravates the situation.
Then there were two quotes in the initial story. One was from a former Saint George’s teacher, who said Skyler “needed to stay” at that school. Another was from a parent who said, “The school knew it was coming,” yet had ignored Skyler’s cry for help.
Green said these quotes were “like needles” jabbed into the school community. The issue isn’t whether they were accurate, or whether these sources could have or should have expressed themselves differently. The question is whether these quotes were integral to the story in the first place. I don’t think so. Including them was needlessly hurtful.
What of Editor Steve Smith’s response in the “Ask the Editor” column? Among other points Smith made on the coverage, he said: “While our hearts go out to the affected family, our responsibility isn’t to meet their needs, it is to meet yours [the readers’].”
McEwen thought this came across as uncaring, and I can see why. While Smith is right – the paper isn’t in a position to address the kind of hurt that most of us can only imagine – his remark can sound dismissive and unsympathetic. That’s especially so to people like the family and others close to the situation, who already felt burned by the initial coverage, and who probably were struck far more by the tone than the point Smith was making.
In conclusion, the paper overall did well in its factual coverage, even in areas that people didn’t like, such as naming Skyler or placing the story on the front page. However, it erred in attempting to answer the “why” question. They could have avoided much of the hurt some readers felt if they’d asked a simple question: How would I feel if this were a story about my brother, sister, son or daughter? The initial story overreached in a bid to explain what is almost certainly inexplicable. And whatever strengths the story had, for many readers close to the situation it’s the weaknesses that linger on – making a grim day even harder to bear.
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