Content warning: This article discusses suicide.
A few months into the pandemic, a New York City emergency room physician named Dr. Lorna Breen, who helped lead the response to the first wave of COVID-19, died by suicide.
Her death became a high-profile story that captured headlines across the country at a time of swelling national emotion and later inspired a bipartisan group of lawmakers to introduce the Dr. Lorna Breen Health Care Provider Protection Act, which aimed to reduce and prevent suicide, burnout and mental health conditions among health care professionals.
Though the legislation is critical for protecting health care workers, it’s important to highlight that the media also has a significant role to play in preventing suicide. While the story of Dr. Breen’s death was important in drawing attention to the toll of the pandemic on the mental health of medical professionals, the way in which the news was actually covered might also have had dangerous consequences.
In a case study recently published in Crisis: The Journal of Crisis Intervention and Suicide Prevention, my co-authors and I found that that top U.S. media outlets covering Dr. Breen’s death did a poor job of adhering to best practice recommendations for reporting on suicide. We modeled our report on a similar case study from 2019 about the coverage of the deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain and ended up finding similar results.
After reviewing all articles published by top U.S. outlets in the days following Dr. Breen’s death, we found that none of the articles abided by more than 10 of 15 recommended guidelines; some articles followed only two of 15. Strikingly, only 75% of the articles we examined even included the phone number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. And language aimed at promoting public health, such as sharing the message that suicide is preventable as per the expert guidelines, was almost non-existent in the extensive coverage.
These findings are significant — and troubling — because one of the main risks raised by media coverage of suicide is contagion. There is plenty of research that shows how irresponsible reporting can contribute to imitation suicides. For instance, a 2018 study found that the U.S. suicide rate increased by nearly 10% in the six months following the widely covered death of actor Robin Williams.
Yet, despite this knowledge, outlets continue to cover the issue of suicide in a way that is reckless and could expose both the subjects and readers of the stories to greater harm.
The Recommendations for Media Reporting on Suicide were first released in 2011 by Dr. Dan Reidenberg, the executive director of Suicide Awareness Voices of Education (SAVE), in collaboration with journalists and other stakeholders. Over the past decade, Reidenberg has led countless media trainings and webinars around the U.S. and globally, and he regularly advises journalists on how best to apply the recommendations to their reporting. Though he says he has noticed an increase in adherence to some of the recommendations over time, there is still plenty of room for improvement.
“When journalists do stories about someone who died by suicide, they have to create a narrative, something that attracts the reader,” Reidenberg said. “Obviously, a celebrity can do that easily.” However, acting on the temptation to sensationalize such a story could have grave consequences.
The coverage of Dr. Breen’s death illustrates how traditional journalistic instincts can run counter to the public interest when it comes to reporting on suicide.
We found the New York Daily News to be the worst offender, flouting all but two of the recommended guidelines in both articles we reviewed. They featured flashy headlines, included specific details about the death, and prominently displayed photos of the deceased, among other transgressions.
The New York Post’s coverage, meanwhile, defied several recommendations in the headline alone: "Top Manhattan ER Doc Commits Suicide, Shaken By Coronavirus Onslaught."
The New York Times, too, reported irresponsibly by oversimplifying the cause of Dr. Breen’s death and glamorizing the suicide by including language about heroism.
Reidenberg understands that journalists are not advocates or activists, but believes they nonetheless have a duty of care not to cause unnecessary harm to their sources or audiences. For this reason, he thinks it is important for them to be educated about how some of the tactics they typically employ to make a story more engaging or relatable to a reader, can actually be counterproductive and even dangerous when it comes to reporting on suicide.
Since 2015, the AP Stylebook has had an entry on suicide that discourages reporting on the topic altogether, “unless the person involved is a well-known figure or the circumstances are particularly unusual or publicly disruptive.” It also advises against going into detail on methods used, and cautions against the use of the phrase “committed suicide,” as it suggests a possibly illegal act.
Reidenberg’s recommendations go beyond simply preventing harm by providing opportunities to create benefit. They encourage reporters to avoid framing suicide as inexplicable or having a single cause, and to instead include crisis resources and information about how coping skills, support and treatment work for most people who have suicidal thoughts.
There are ways to sensitively and accurately report a story about someone who died by suicide without glamorizing or falling back on harmful tropes. One way of doing so is by helping the audience understand why they died by focusing on systemic issues around the training of physicians, the hours that they work, and the pressures and demands that they’re under, especially during a pandemic.
“We need to tell those stories, but we have to tell them in the context of what the issue is, and the issue is suicide, and what can we do about it,” Reidenberg said. “Most media stories fail to talk about what we can do about it. They tell the story of the person and their life and the decline in their life and what they’ve left behind, but they don’t include ‘What are we going to do to fix the problem?’”
Because reporters don’t often cover suicide as part of their beat, they might be unaware of the ways in which this issue necessitates a different approach than most other kinds of stories. However, as conversations about suicide prevention become more commonplace in society, we must also make space in the editorial process for considering how journalists play a role in this effort.
Dr. Breen’s story was an important one, and publications could and should have done a better job of covering it. Reflecting on these publications’ mistakes, and their potentially grave consequences can help us avoid repeating them in the future.
If you've found this content distressing or difficult to discuss, you're not alone. There are resources available to help. Start by exploring the resources from the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, and please seek psychological support if needed.
Klaudia Jaźwińska is a reporter and researcher whose work centers around media, technology, labor, and ethics. She is a Marshall Scholar and a 2021 Fellowships at Auschwitz for the Study of Professional Ethics Journalism fellow. Original scholarship was produced in a partnership with Erika Lynn-Green, Adam Beckman, and Stephen Latham.