Deadly accurate reporting

Journalism has consequences. That's the ethical issue that faces reporters on certain kinds of stories. Is all information good? Or is some information more harmful than good? My colleague, Ben L.

Apr 6, 2008 at 2:06 pm

Journalism has consequences. That's the ethical issue that faces reporters on certain kinds of stories. Is all information good? Or is some information more harmful than good?

My colleague, Ben L. Kaufman, believes the law is sound that forbids reporters from naming covert CIA agents — the law involved in the investigation into who leaked the identity of Valerie Plame. Outing CIA agents, he argues, can lead to their deaths.

I believe that identifying covert agents and undercover police officers is a legitimate journalistic function and an act of public service. After all, not outing them could lead to other people's deaths.

The Cincinnati Enquirer took on one of those morally dangerous topics in its March 30 edition. Kimball Perry wrote an absorbing, if troubling, story about a 15-year-old boy who took his own life.

The article explores aspects of the dead youth's state of mind, academic performance and social life. It provides practical information for assessing suicidal impulses in adolescents. A sidebar ("Where to get help") provides practical information for adolescents and those who care about them.

If that were all that the package did, no one could complain. Perry's article is a gritty but humane look at a deeply disturbing phenomenon: the high number of teen suicides in this country.

But Perry's article did more than detail the psychological issues involved in this particular young man's suicide. The article gave considerable detail on how he did it.

"Tony pulled a 14-ounce bottle of Hershey's Creamy Chocolate Milkshake and a gallon jug of XXXX from his backpack," Perry wrote. "He mixed the XXXX — containing the toxic chemical XXXX — with the XXXX and used the toxic cocktail to wash down the XXXX. He was dead within hours."

The article practically gives the recipe for the suicide.

"For someone of Tony's weight, it would take about a cup of XXXX to kill," Perry wrote.

Need more precise instructions?

"The XXXX container held 3.9 ounces of 'a cloudy, yellow-brown liquid' that was 78 percent XXXX and a 'residual amount of chocolate milkshake,' the coroner reported."

The ethical issue is whether the public benefits — or suffers — from the kind of information this article provides. Perry's article used the names of the lethal ingredients used by the young man to end his life. In an act of self-censorship, I substituted XXXX.

The child's parents cooperated with Perry's article, hoping that talking about their tragedy might prevent another family from experiencing it. Bringing issues of mental health to light can improve public awareness and eliminate the stigma that keeps some people from getting help.

But did Perry give too much detail? Did the article, in effect, tell kids how to kill themselves?

Suicide Contagion and the Reporting of Suicide, a 1994 report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, made recommendations for maximizing the benefit and minimizing the harm involved in this kind of story. The report warned against "reporting 'how-to' descriptions of suicide. ... Describing technical details about the method of suicide is undesirable. For example, reporting that a person died from carbon monoxide poisoning may not be harmful; however, providing details of the mechanism and procedures used to complete the suicide may facilitate imitation of the suicidal behavior by other at-risk persons."

There is a universal taboo against giving too much detail on the methodology of suicide. Media Wise, a trade association in the United Kingdom, has the same concerns as the CDC.

Its guidelines for reporting suicide warn, "Publicising details of suicide methods can encourage imitation. It may be relevant to indicate how a person has died, but providing too much detail may encourage others to try these methods."

CityBeat doesn't use XXXX to substitute for words that are considered "cursing." When someone says, "Fuck," we print "Fuck." We don't censor the use of racial slurs if they're an important part of a story; when Cincinnati Police officers have been caught on tape using racial slurs, we've quoted them.

The idea is not to shock or offend but rather to inform by showing people as they really talk. Words tell us something about the people who use them.

But I won't repeat the suicide recipe that The Enquirer provided. I substituted XXXX for each of the ingredients because I don't want anyone to learn here how to bring on death. Did reading my self-censored version deprive you of useful information or protect you from harmful information? It's not always easy to decide.

Watch for letters of complaint to The Enquirer from mental-health professionals.