Covering Suicide: An important lesson learned

By Christina Maxouris

If you're a student leadership, and have stayed with your university paper for more than a month-long experimental period, you know that covering suicide is one of our greatest struggles. Personally, I've been involved with two cases on campus so far -- and neither one, as you'd expect, was an easy experience. 

Emily Barske, Iowa State Daily (ISD) Editor-in-chief, was a speaker worth front-row sitting in for. And she knew exactly what it's like covering suicide, because she has, and that made all the difference. 

The Signal has covered a range of deaths by suicide in the past, but our main guidance so far has been not to sensationalize the incident, so as to not sensationalize the idea. But it doesn't seem that Iowa State thinks the same way, and I'd be lying if I said I agree with their point of view more than I do with ours. 

Students taking their own life is an issue we need to talk about. Anyone taking their own life is an issue we need to talk about. NOT sensationalize, yes, but COVER. 

Barske walked us through their paper's experience. I tracked down the stories she referred to so I can get a clear idea of what their reporting looked like. 

First, it was a student who held a gun, and the paper first reported on the incident to let their student body there was no danger on campus. Here's the follow-up the paper ran once campus police released the name of the student. 

And why wait until police release the name to publish that story? Barske said it was so that families and loved ones don't find out about their loss through a news outlet -- and who can say they don't agree with that? 

Stories like those are similar to what our university paper has been running, but there's something very special Iowa State Daily has been doing. Tributes to the fallen ones.

In this other case, they first reported on an accident where a man was fatally injured on the train tracks. But that wasn't it. 

They then did a tribute to Charlie, who was a local, loved musician, even though he had no direct ties to the university. 

And here's the story they ran on Dale Stein, the student who was killed by his own gun on campus. A moving piece of compiled stories from his friends and loved ones about who student used to be. 

And most importantly, they then ran stories with available resources on campus, to remind their community, there's more than just one way out. 

Acknowledging, not sensationalizing. Understanding that we can not control the impact that these stories will have on our university community, but doing our best to make sure that impact is a positive, and helpful one. ISD even hosted a Facebook live discussion with mental health professionals, and student group leaders, to address resources and available help, as well as how to go about helping a loved one who might be struggling.

It seems to me, ISD nailed it. 

But -- and maybe quite selfishly -- one of the most important things I kept from Barske's talk was remembering we (the reporters) are human too. Self-care, self-care, self-care.  If that means taking the day off, spending the night with your mom or three hours in bed looking at cat videos to recover, I think both Emily and I would agree it's best to go ahead and do so. Once a story is accurately reported on, and you've got a team keeping a watchful eye over updates, then, it's important to spend some time being human.