Suicide, journalists and media: Lessons from when a source does the unthinkable
It may be the most horrifying outcome to a big news story: When a source featured in a controversial piece commits suicide.
Journalists here at the Tampa Bay Times have faced the fallout from just such a tragedy, when Gretchen Molannen, a woman profiled in a story published in our first monthly Floridian magazine, took her own life as a story on her rare and controversial medical condition was published. Molannen suffered from a rare sexual disorder known as persistent genital arousal; a debilitating condition marked by continuous sexual arousal.
Her death Nov. 30 kicked off an outpouring of reader reaction and media speculation. One local blogger suggested the Times had "blood on it hands" for publishing a story on Molannen, raising questions about why reporter Leonora LaPeter Anton read the story to her before it was published.
As a media critic, I admit upfront my own conflicts here are numerous. I know the reporter and editors involved, and I've worked with Anton on a different story, seeing up close how careful she's been with regular folks about to be featured in a controversial story which may turn them into public figures.
Despite the carping from some, it makes sense to review the content of some controversial stories with the subject, particularly if the piece is a feature in which a person who is not known to the public or experienced with media attention is opening their lives to the newspaper.
Unlike instances where other media outlets have allowed sources to approve quotes, this practice doesn't give subjects editorial control; reporters I've spoken to who do this retain the right to make changes or not based on their decisions, not the sources' reactions. It's about ensuring accuracy and fair coverage in long and complex tales.
I recall that former Times writer and Pulitzer Prize winner Tom French shared content from his award winning series Angels and Demons with one of its central subjects, Ohio farmer Hal Rogers, who saw his wife and two daughters murdered by a man it took Florida police three years to track down. The stories were so intimate and the subject matter so delicate, it made sense.
Watching people in media question the decision to share the newspaper's story with Molannen before publication, I realized even those of us who handle information for a living haven't thought much about the issues raised in such an awful circumstance.
Cliched as it may sound, Molannen's death also provided some tough lessons for all of us in journalism and media -- lessons I'm only now beginning to articulate myself.
1) Journalists and our audiences often struggle with understanding suicide and depression because we don't cover it enough. For fear of copycatting, mainstream media outlets often don't report on suicides which involve someone who is not well known or connected to a big news story. But that also means the public doesn't have much understanding about suicide and journalists don't necessarily know how to place such actions in context.
Indeed, intermittent coverage can produce the worst of both worlds: highlighting high-profile cases while not keeping the public informed on how often suicide happens or how it impacts average citizens.
This issue arose back in 2007, when WFLA-Ch. 8 meteorologist John Winter took his own life after revealing to those close to him that he had cheated on his wife. Suicide prevention experts told me that the act is rarely the result of one event, despite outward appearances, in the same way a heart attack is rarely the result of a single surprise or shock. People can be adept at hiding the impact of depression in their lives and their thought process when considering suicide is rarely logical.
Still, the headline in one edition of TBT seemed to place blame for Winter's death on his shame, which some experts insisted was something that couldn't be known. Jumping to conclusions about why Molannen killed herself, especially when police now say she likely committed suicide before the story on her was published online, seems unwise. (one friend of Molannen's has written a blog post contending the failure of medical and legal institutions to help her before her case was publicized was the real issues)
2) A track record of transparency in difficult situations can help. Some may have reacted cynically to the Times reporting on its process of working with Molannen to tell her story, but I thought it was important and sorely needed. Beyond defending the newspaper, the story (found here ) also shed light on how such pieces are developed and how a journalist works with the subject to present a fair, accurate, incisive but responsible account.
I do think the newspaper's tendency to be tight-lipped about negative events in which it is directly involved can contribute to the cynicism. Being more open, even when we may have made mistakes, can build trust whenever we're compelled to report on ourselves.
Also, as allergic as journalists can be to so-called "navel-gazing," I think it is important when the public gets a window into our methods.
3) Ultimately, journalists have little control over what happens once their story is released to the world. Especially in today's fragmented media universe, stories are published and take flight online, on wire services, on blogs, Twitter feeds, Facebook postings and more, leaving the feeling of a barn door forever propped open.
As an example, minutes after I tweeted news of Molannen's suicide, a local radio personality added a tasteless joke while passing along the news. I noted that her family might not appreciate reading the message, and the person deleted the tweet, apologizing for reacting without thinking carefully.
That may be the ultimate challenge: To think carefully about such delicate issues inside a media machine which pushes for immediate reaction, reporting and context, 24 hours a day.