Suicide: The Media's Hidden Shame

Sometimes it's not commentary, it's vandalism. And when that happens, it's time to use the delete key.

That's what happened in the post below on the death of James Gary Brown. Don't get me wrong. Even on a post as sensitive as that one I won't touch a negative comment if it raises a valid point. But someone got on here and wrote a few attack messages that made ridiculous allegations and amounted to nonsense. It prompted a family member to write comments pleading with that person to stop. When I saw them the comments this morning, I deleted all of them, except a note from Davie activist Karen Stenzel-Nowicki. Stenzel-Nowicki thought it was important to note that this wasn't a Sun-Sentinel blog and it might not be in "the best interests of Mr. Brown's family and the community."

Karen, thanks for keeping up community standards -- you know, like the time you did that political cartoon that depicted the chief of the Seminole Tribe as a "drum-beating, half-naked barbarian," as the arbiter of all things decent, the Sun-Sentinel, described it.

Stenzel-Nowicki brought some good information to light in her comment:

"So that our community knows, I contacted the Sun-Sentinel on 10/19/08 and have the word of the Sun-Sentinel and its editors no story will be published due to the sensitive nature, and out of respect and compassion to the family and our community," she wrote.

I've never liked the mainstream media's blanket policy not to cover suicide. I think it's only helped keep the issue in a corner, making the family suffer in silence. The lack of coverage only intensifies the stigma of suicide, which surely doesn't help those that are suffering with suicidal ideation to come forward and talk about it. I really don't know how that translates into "respect and compassion." The fact is that bringing problems out into the open and dealing with them as a society helps. And it is perhaps the chief reason newspapers exist.

Suicide isn't shameful. It's only human -- and every family has been touched by it in some way or another. So why do newspapers make a point to ignore the issue? Well, one reason offered for not covering suicide is that it might cause more people to do it. Following that reasoning, why not stop covering homicides as well? The truth is that there are about twice as many suicides as murders in the United States (in 2005, there were about 32,000 suicides versus 16,000 homicides). Hundreds of thousands more attempt suicide each year; and the rates are highest among the young and the elderly. I did my part in trying to lift the veil on the latter problem by tracking a year in suicides by senior citizens in Broward County.

Look, I'm not saying that newspapers should cover every suicide, just that it should be on the radar any policy against covering it should be abolished. When I was a cops reporter in Fort Myers, I remember a day where there were three suicides, a very high number for a smallish town. I wanted to tell the stories, but because the issue was verboten, it couldn't be done. In general, newspapers only cover suicide if it involves a public official or was done in a public way. By those standards, Brown's death fell in a gray area, since he's the son of a public official and he was recently in the news. I actually expected briefs in both the Sentinel and Miami Herald, but both newspapers instead decided to do nothing. It's a decision both publications have every right to make, but don't ever believe they are doing anyone a favor by hiding the truth about suicide.

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