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Historical Research on Suicide Coverage

Reporting on Suicide in Canadian Media

Gemma Richardson, PhD Candidate

Faculty of Information and Media Studies

Western University, London, Ontario

This paper has been extracted, condensed and adapted from a larger academic paper for the purposes of the Mindset web site.


This paper explores Canadian reporting on suicide and the ways in which this has changed over the past 150 years. The archival research on the reporting practices of two long-standing daily newspapers presented here shows that suicide was not always taboo in the media. In fact, the silencing and tip-toeing around reporting on suicide only began to occur in the mid-20th century. Once suicide became an untouchable subject in newsrooms the stigma became entrenched, making it hard to address in any meaningful way for decades. However, in recent years the taboo around suicide has begun to break down and once again there is an evolution in how it is covered in the media. These research findings are followed by a review of existing newsroom practices on covering suicide and the development of media guidelines by mental health professionals, along with interviews from some of the leading experts on ethics in Canadian media.


            In recent years, the taboo around reporting on suicide in the media has begun to crumble and the subject has been given increasing attention by reporters, columnists and editors. While it had been general practice to not report on suicides for the past few decades, unless involving a high-profile person, this tradition is not as longstanding as some might believe. In fact, suicide was regularly discussed, and in quite shocking detail, in the Canadian press of the 19th and early 20th century. It was not until the mid-20th century that reporting on the suicides of everyday people (in contrast to high-profile individuals) dwindled away and eventually became taboo to even mention. In this paper, I provide an overview of the findings of my archival research on media coverage of suicide over the past 150 years in two long-standing Canadian newspapers, as well as a review of current policies and procedures in Canadian newsrooms when it comes to covering suicide. This research is complemented by the insights I gained from interviewing several of the leading experts and practitioners in Canadian journalism on this topic.

Early Canadian News Coverage of Suicide

            My historical research is centered on the coverage contained in the Globe and Mail since it began in 1844 and the Toronto Star since it began in 1894. I accessed the comprehensive digital archives of these two newspapers due to the vast quantity of coverage and large span of time I wanted to examine. While I acknowledge the limitations of focusing on just two daily newspapers, both located in Toronto, I believe that there are still many transferrable traits in the this coverage and I hope to confirm this in future research of an expanded scope. It should also be noted that many of the articles examined for this archival research were taken directly from other Canadian newspapers, often smaller regional papers, as well as from British and American newspapers, followed later by reliance on wire services for news reports—meaning that the suicide coverage examined here is likely representative of what was contained in other Canadian newspapers.

            The coverage of suicide was vastly different in the 19th century to what we have become accustomed to today. The Globe and Mail reported on individual suicides since it first began (as The Globe) in May of 1844. Suicide deaths were treated as everyday occurrences and received small mentions along with other local, national and international information. When the Toronto Star began publishing in 1894 (as The Evening Star and later as the Toronto Daily Star), it also reported on individual suicides with full names and information about the method. Explicit details were often provided in the reports of suicides, such as the type and sometimes even exact amount of a poison taken, or details on how people cut their own throats or the passage of bullets through bodies in self-inflicted gunshot wounds. On September 4, 1847 The Globe ran a small blurb in a list of notices on the second page that stated: "A carpenter, named Nimbs, committed suicide in Niagara, on the 28th ultimo, by swallowing 55 grains of opium." It was followed immediately by a blurb about the monthly meeting of the Toronto Building Society the following Monday. These were just matter-of-fact pieces of information being passed along to the readers, and it did not matter whether or not the individual was of a high-profile for their suicide to be reported. Other poisons that were explicitly mentioned included chloroform, strychnine, ammonia, carbolic acid, formaline, laudanum, and Paris Green (a brand of rat poison). A gruesome account is provided in The Globe on June 30, 1910 of a man who laid down across some railway tracks in Owen Sound. The report details how: "His head was severed completely from the body, and the lower part of his face was too mutilated for recognition." In a piece on December 9, 1848, The Globe details how Sergeant James Wilson in New Brunswick killed himself while under the influence of liquor by "means of a pistol and powder only—the contents entering one of his cheeks and out of one eye." The article goes on to detail how the man "lingered about 36 hours afterwards, when death terminated his sufferings." A classic example of the detail given even in short reports on local suicide deaths comes from page 3 of The Globe on January 1, 1848: "Suicide.—A girl named Jackson, who resided about a mile from town, committed suicide this afternoon by cutting her throat with a razor from ear to ear. No cause assigned for the rash act." Another example of the rather gruesome and highly unnecessary detail given to the exact cause of death can be found on February 16, 1848 in The Globe:

An emigrant made a most determined attempt to commit suicide at Lloydtown a few days ago, by cutting his throat with a razor. He severed the windpipe nearly across. Dr. Ball was promptly in attendance, but owing to the extent of the injuries inflicted, but faint hopes are entertained of his recovery. He had lost his wife and children in the summer, by the emigrant fever, and has been in a desponding state ever since; and to this his neighbours attribute the rash act.

As seen in these examples, suicide was often referred to as a "rash act" in early newspaper accounts, especially when explaining the circumstances surrounding the death. For example, on July 15, 1848 The Globe ran a small piece on Edward Phillips, a young man in Vermont who shot himself after coming into considerable wealth. The second last sentence of the small piece on his death states: "An affair of the heart is said to be the cause of the rash act." Many of the reports on suicides try to identify a single cause, a rationale, for the death. When a simplified reason could not be attributed for the death, reporters would state that the cause was not yet determined, as if there would at some point always be a singular reason found in every single case. The rationales range from a person not being of sound mind, to trouble in love, to a personal or economic disgrace of some manner. The headline on a suicide story in the Evening Star on April 30, 1894 was: "Builder fails in business and shoots himself." Other stories would end with statements, such as "It is thought that [he] is insane," "Embarrassed circumstances are stated to have been the cause of his self destruction," and "Old age made him despondent."

                  Some of the articles on suicide mentioned suicide letters and some even included reprinted excerpts from the letters. On December 4, 1849 The  Globe printed in full one of the notes left by a woman who apparently jumped to her death in Niagara Falls, stating "The following is a copy of the letter addressed by Mrs. Miller to Mr. White, of the Eagle Hotel." The Evening Star published a small item in the middle of the fourth page on August 17, 1894 with the headline: "His Dog, Not his Wife" with the subhead "Woman driven to suicide through abuse." It reprinted a note she left for her husband before killing herself: "I have been your dog and not your wife; now it will end. It seems hard to part from my children; treat them different from what you did me." The article goes on to state: "When arrested [the husband] expressed no surprise that his wife had killed herself. He admits the cruelty and says she cried once before to die." These deaths would not even be reported on now, let alone with such detail.

            Both newspapers reported not just suicide deaths, but also about people who were charged with attempted suicide. The front page of the November 5 Evening Star in 1894 included the following small article:


The Would-Be Suicide Placed in His Father's Care

Albert Laycock was neatly dressed when he stood in the dock at Police Court to-day and pleaded not guilty to a charge of attempting to commit suicide.

His father was present and promised to take charge of him. He was liberated on bail, and the case was enlarged for a week.

Attempted suicides were reported in detail with full names and methods. On page 1 of the March 21, 1894 Evening Star, an article entitled "HE WANTS TO SUICIDE" detailed how an elderly man had tried to kill himself by taking poison. However, when the doctors managed to revive him, he said he would do it again as soon as he got the chance so he was arrested. These types of revelations were quite common and not considered exclusively private matters of no public interest, as they are now.

            Coroner's inquests were reported in detail, including possible motives for suicide and the findings of the inquest judges. The front page of the Evening Star on January 23, 1894 featured a lengthy column on an inquest into the body of a man found in the Humber River that took up almost the entire first column, of the eight on the front page. It featured numerous headlines and sub-heads, the third being "Very Much Like Suicide." The article gives each of the names of the inquest jurors and details all of the evidence before them about the discovery of the man's body. While at the time of the report it was not know if the man had been murdered, drowned accidentally or purposefully ended his life in the river, the article includes an entire section speculating about the potential reason that would have led the man to choose suicide. The article states: "If Bacon committed suicide there is only one explanation of the case, and it was for disappointment in love." Apparently the man went missing shortly after he found out that a young girl he loved had married another man. The verdicts of the coroner's inquiries often assigned a singular cause to the suicide, such despondency from being out of work, or temporary insanity, indicating that it was not just reporters who sought a singular cause in each death, but also the medical professionals of the time.

            By the latter decades of the 19th century, public perceptions of suicide were shifting from it being an abhorrent crime to a misfortune requiring sympathy. British writer Al Alvarez concludes in his 1971 book The Savage God: A Study of Suicide, that what had once been a mortal sin became a private vice, something shameful to be avoided and tidied away:

[Suicide became accepted] as a common fact of society - not as a noble Roman alternative, nor as the moral sin it had been the Middle Ages, nor as a special cause to be pleaded or warned against - but simply as something people did, often and without much hesitation, like committing adultery.

While suicide remained a crime, many people were deemed to be suffering from a fit of despondency or temporary insanity, excusing them from being fully responsible for such an act. The emphasis on the mental state of individuals who killed themselves continued to grow in the 20th century, foreshadowing the current highly medicalized conception of suicide that is now widely accepted.

Mid-to-late 20th Century Newspaper Coverage of Suicide in Canada

            The graphic detail in suicide reporting continued on into the early 20th century. Over the years the more sensational deaths took over from the more mundane and everyday-type suicides, which can perhaps be attributed to the increasing size of the population (and increasing number of suicides) or the lasting effects of sensational-type reporting, "yellow journalism", that was popularized by Americans William Randolph Hurst and Joseph Pulitzer. The bizarre and sensational stories of suicides from all over the world were printed in small blurbs, such as the small piece that the Toronto Daily Star ran on January 16, 1940 entitled "Bald at 29 too much, dead." The story was of a man in Los Angeles who died of suicide by asphyxiation because losing his hair bothered him greatly. On May 17, 1950 The Globe and Mail ran a small piece about a house painter in France entitled "Swallows shirt in Third Attempt at Suicide, Dies." It explains how he tore up his shirt and swallowed it while being treated in the hospital for the injuries from his first two attempts. Attempted suicides were still reported and those involved were still charged with criminal acts, until attempting suicide was finally removed from the Criminal Code of Canada in 1972. By the 1960s, many of the articles mentioning suicide were related to criminal cases, such as numerous murder-suicides or even people charged with crimes who attempted suicide while in custody. For example, in late December 1970, both The Toronto Star and Globe and Mail included articles based on a Canadian Press report naming a 17-year old boy who had hung himself by his pajamas in his cell in a Guelph juvenile detention centre. Along with the rise in professionalization and the elevation of objectivity in journalism, suicide reports moved away from the everyday local occurrences to only the  sensational, bizarre, or high-profile. From the mid-to-late 20th century, the appearance of articles that reported on deaths but made no mention of suicide even if it was a possibility became more common. Obviously these articles were not included in the search results for articles explicitly mentioning suicide, but instead were found through searching for the now commonly used line at the end of stories about mysterious deaths: "No foul play is suspected." The use of this statement in lieu of any mention of suicide increased throughout the 1970s and 1980s and continues to be used today.

            According to suicide historian Olive Anderson, in the 20th century suicide became an issue of "an introspective agony" and essentially an "escape from depression". The linking of depression and suicide resulted in a long lasting medical truth that carries major clout in current Western understandings of suicide. Bioethics philosopher Margaret Pabst Battin explains in her 2005 book Ending life: Ethics and the way we die:

suicide has come to be seen by the public and particularly by health professionals as primarily a matter of mental illness, perhaps compounded by biochemical factors and social stressors, the sad result of depression or other often treatable diseases - a tragedy to be prevented.

While the linking of suicide almost exclusively to psychiatric causes is widely accepted, there are those who challenge this notion. Austrian writer Jean Améry takes a Foucauldian approach in his critique of the medicalization of suicide, stating that "today it is sociology, psychiatry, and psychology that are the appointed bearers of public order, that deal with voluntary death as one deals with a sickness." Even Harvard psychiatrists John Maltsberger and Mark Goldblatt note:

 Suicidal phenomena are too complex, too rich in meaning, too elusive, to be caged in a psychiatric or neurobiological box. They will not be reduced. That suicide is not merely an epiphenomenon of depression is demonstrated by at least two inescapable facts: the majority of depressed patients are not suicidal, and suicide occurs in a substantial number of persons after depression has lifted.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has focused international attention on the issue of suicide, noting that in the last 45 years, suicide rates have increased by 60% worldwide. While there has been a global increase in suicide, in Canada the increase mainly occurred in the late 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s. According to the Centre for Suicide Prevention, the population of Canada more than doubled from 1950 to 1995, yet the number of suicide deaths increased threefold—from 1,067 in 1950 to 3,970 in 1995. It was during this time period of increasing numbers of suicides that the issue of suicide contagion, especially imitation linked to media coverage of suicide, was explored in numerous empirical studies.

The Contagion Debate

            Émile Durkheim, a founding figure in the field of sociology and author of one of the most comprehensive studies ever conducted on suicide, agrees that suicide can be contagious within localized areas and concedes that different suicides almost always resemble one another to an astonishing degree; however he concludes that contagion of suicide is from individual to individual, and never goes as far as to affect the overall societal suicide-rate. Therefore, he challenges the notion that suicide contagion has social effects, contending: "Within a narrow circle it may well occasion the repetition of a single thought or action, but never are its repercussions sufficiently deep or extensive to reach and modify the heart of society." He addresses those who have called for the prohibition of printing suicides and crimes in newspapers in order to curb their imitative power, arguing that such a prohibition might succeed in slightly reducing the annual total but could hardly modify their social rate. Sociologist David Phillips was one of the first to challenge Durkheim's assertion that imitative factors had little impact on the suicide rate. Phillips published multiple studies indicating patterns of increased suicide rates following publicity suicide deaths received in the media. Many studies followed, inspired by Phillips' attempts to link media coverage of suicide with increased occurrences of suicide immediately following the coverage. While many of the research studies suggest there may be some correlation between media portrayal of suicide and suicide rates, these correlations fluctuate across variables such as age and gender. To provide an explanation for these variations in findings, in 2005 Steven Stack applied logistic regression techniques to 55 prior studies on imitative effects of media coverage of suicide. He found that studies measuring the effects of media coverage of a celebrity suicide were 5.27 times more likely to find a copycat effect and studies focusing on female suicide were 4.89 times more likely to report a copycat effect than other studies. Stack’s study indicates that there are numerous variables that must be accounted for in conducting this type of research. He ultimately concludes that while narrative research reviews of existing studies have found a strong association between media coverage of suicide and ensuing suicidal behaviour in society, his own quantified statistical review of the previous studies actually determined the weight of the evidence to be against an imitative effect. In fact, 64.2% of the findings he analyzed reported the absence of an imitative effect. Interestingly, Stack's findings have not quelled the authority of the imitative effect of media coverage of suicide argument. As I will address in the following section, it is the previous, conflicting and often times inconclusive, studies that are referred to in media guidelines issued by mental health organizations and suicide prevention groups as evidence of the potential of the imitative effect.

Media Guidelines

The (debatable) correlation between media coverage and suicide imitation resulted in calls for awareness of the impacts of the way in which journalists report on suicide. In 2000, the WHO issued a set of guidelines for journalists entitled Preventing Suicide: A Resource for Media Professionals, which was then expanded and reissued in 2008. Several countries have also issued similar guidelines to the WHO specifically for their national media, including Australia (Australian Press Council, 2011), New Zealand (New Zealand Ministry of Health, 2011), the United States (American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, 2012), Canada (Canadian Association for the Prevention of Suicide, n.d.), Hong Kong (University of Hong Kong, n.d.), Ireland (Irish Association for Suicidology & Samaritans, n.d.), Austria (International Association for Suicide Prevention, 2005), and the United Kingdom (Samaritans, 2008), among others. In 2009, the Canadian Psychiatric Association (CPA) published a policy paper entitled Media Guidelines for Reporting Suicide. In this paper, the CPA cites several studies as evidence demonstrating the "significant" link between media reporting of suicides and copycat suicides among youth and young adults under 24 years of age. The CPA policy paper simplifies the existing research on suicide contagion to argue that there is a clear correlation, without any acknowledgement of the conflicting and contradictory findings contained within many of the studies on this phenomenon. The paper states that while guidelines exist for media on careful reporting of suicide, most journalists are still unaware of the impact of reporting on suicide and are often not acquainted with the guidelines. The CPA endorses the guidelines published by the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention, as well as the Centre for Disease Control in the United States. The key items from these guidelines are highlighted in the policy paper, which are very similar to the WHO guidelines mentioned above, as well as most other national guidelines. The policy paper from the CPA includes a table summarizing the guidelines for media reporting on suicide, which has been reproduced and included here (see Table 1).

Table 1  Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention and Center for Disease Control, Guidelines for Media Reporting Suicide (taken directly from Nepon et al., 2009, p. 3)



·      Details of the method

·      The word “suicide” in the headline

·      Photo(s) of the deceased

·      Admiration of the deceased

·      The idea that suicide is unexplainable

·      Repetitive or excessive coverage

·      Front page coverage

·      Exciting reporting

·      Romanticized reasons for the suicide

·      Simplistic reasons for the suicide

·      Approval of the suicide

·      Alternatives to suicide (e.g. treatment)

·      Community resource information for those with suicidal ideation

·      Examples of positive outcomes to a suicidal crisis (e.g. calling a suicide hotline)

·      Warning signs of suicidal behaviour

·      How to approach a suicidal person


            In light of the development of media guidelines, some researchers on media effects of suicide have examined if and how media guidelines may indeed reduce the number of suicide deaths. In the often cited article “Preventing Suicide by Influencing Mass Media Reporting: The Viennese Experience 1980-1996,” two researchers document how, after the first subway system was implemented in Vienna in 1978, jumping in front of oncoming subway trains became an increasingly utilized method of suicide. The Austrian media often sensationally reported on these suicides, prompting the formation of a study-group that developed media guidelines and launched a media campaign in 1987. The researchers found that media reporting changed drastically following the campaign and subway suicides and attempts dropped an astounding 80% within six months. They concluded that “it is possible to prevent imitative suicides by influencing the reports.” This is by far the most commonly cited study giving credibility to the argument that reporting that adheres to the recommended guidelines can in fact reduce suicides.

However, there are those who are critical of guidelines from mental health organizations on reporting suicide. Suicide researcher Ian Marsh argues that guidelines place limits on the portrayal and interpretation of suicide: "We are asked to look away, and if we do think about the subject, to do so in one way only (as an act arising from individual pathology)." In an interview with the CBC, Globe and Mail health columnist André Picard says the guidelines are well-intentioned, but end up perpetuating the stigma surrounding suicide the guidelines aim to address, ultimately making them self-defeating. Picard is also critical of the premise of the copycat effect underlining all guidelines on reporting suicide. He says there is no good evidence on the contagion effect so he does not accept that premise. In particular, he questions the CPA policy paper's focus on people under the age of 24 and the copycat effect on them, as it seems very few young people are thorough and regular consumers of news media. Cliff Lonsdale, former CBC editor and producer, echoes this concern, arguing that if media contagion is an issue, how does one explain teenage suicide when so few 15 year-olds are reading newspapers? Journalist Liam Casey points out that the CPA guidelines do not govern the Internet, where most young people can access detailed information on individual suicides. Former editor of the London Free Press and coordinator of the print and broadcast journalism programs at Conestoga College, Larry Cornies, concludes that the imitative effect is not something that journalist are overly concerned about. "I don't think journalists have ever bought into [the copycat effect]," he says. "Although I wouldn't be surprised if there is some evidence that it is true. But generally, if we got gun-shy about reporting certain things because other people might do it, then you also might not want to report that someone planted a bomb at the Boston Marathon, other people could do it at other marathons. It is a very slippery slope you don't want to go down."

            Another major critique journalists and editors have with guidelines, such as the ones endorsed by the CPA, is that they are written far too prescriptively and often by third parties who solicited little to no input from journalists when developing the guidelines. Lonsdale says journalists take issue with the fact most guidelines are not written by people who appreciate news judgement, often resulting in the "baby getting thrown out with the bath water", as good points in the guidelines are dismissed along with the rest. This is why the organization he heads, the Canadian Journalism Forum on Violence and Trauma, has partnered with CBC News and the Mental Health Commission of Canada to develop media guidelines on reporting on mental health issues. Suicide is covered in their guidelines (which include a small booklet and comprehensive web site). Guidelines such as the ones developed by Lonsdale and his colleagues will likely have a much greater appeal to journalists and editors because they are written by journalists for journalists, with a strong appreciation for what actually goes on in newsrooms across the country. Media guidelines from external sources are usually far more explicit and detailed than any internal newsroom guidelines on covering suicides, but while somewhat restrictive, none of these guidelines call for the outright silencing of discussion of suicide in the media. Yet in many ways that is exactly what newsrooms across North America did for many years when it came to coverage of suicide.

Policies and Practices in Canadian Newsrooms on Suicide Coverage

            Canadian media ethics scholar Nick Russell explains that the media have a simple rule: "No suicides. Except." It is the exceptions that are difficult to define. In the Canadian Press Stylebook, widely used as the basic standard for journalistic writing and practice in Canada, there was no directive on how or when suicide should be reported for many decades. The only mention of suicide is a statement that appeared starting in the 12th edition that was revised to include suicide (this statement had only mentioned AIDS in previous editions):

When the cause [of death] is suspected to be suicide or a disease like AIDS, which carries certain connotations, respecting the wishes of the family can normally be justified. However, in the case of someone clearly in public life, the right to privacy in such matters can be outweighed by the public's right to know. If in doubt, consult Head Office.

The guide does not elaborate on what connotations exactly suicide carries with it, but clearly these are negative or scandalous connotations being suggested to warrant this stigmatizing statement. This is the only directive given on suicide in the entire guidebook. With the lack of a clear directive on how and when to report on suicide in the Canadian Press Stylebook or the ethics codes of the major national journalism organizations such as the Canadian Association for Journalists, it is clear that individual Canadian media organizations either have their own internal policies, or suicide stories are decided on a case-by-case basis. According to Catherine McKercher and Carmen Cumming, authors of a widely used textbook in Canadian journalism schools, The Canadian Reporter, traditionally Canadian newspapers did not report "a death was a suicide unless the subject was unusually prominent or the circumstances were extraordinary—as when a former premier shot himself in his shower, or when a woman leaped from the Peace Tower." However, they contend that in recent years there appears to be a greater tendency to state the fact of suicide if it is so labelled by the police. Regardless, they recommend any reporter check their newspaper's policy before going ahead with a suicide story.

            According to Russell, many newsrooms have a standing rule against covering suicides, in part because of the evidence of copycat suicides resulting from coverage. For example, he cites the policy manual of the Windsor Star, which specifies all stories mentioning suicide be cleared by a senior editor, and states that most suicides should not be reported, unless they are very public or the title of the person is significant. The Toronto Star's most recently updated policy manual has much the same wording: "The Star generally does not report that a death was a suicide unless there is some overriding public interest in doing so. Suicide stories must be discussed with the managing editor, or ME designate, before publication." CBC Ombudsperson Esther Enkin says many journalists believed they were not allowed to report on suicide, even if there was no such explicit rule. CBC's internal guidelines (which are more extensive than the ones available to the public on the web site) reference the guidelines on reporting on suicide by the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention. In the "Journalistic Standards and Practices" page on the CBC web site, the entry on suicide, listed under the Crime and Police Reporting section, says: "We are sensitive in our handling of suicides, suicide attempts and desperate acts. In particular, we avoid describing the act in detail or illustrating the method, and we consider the risk of glorifying this behaviour or of influencing vulnerable people." While the above examples involve newsrooms that have written policies, these internal policies are not firm and exceptions are made. Most newsrooms that do have policies on suicide state that it is not general practice to report on suicide, with the key exceptions being when a public person takes his or her own life, or when a suicide is done in a highly public manner. However, many newsrooms have no written policy on suicide, including The Globe and Mail and stories are decided on a case-by-case basis, usually by precedent.

            Determining why particular events receive news coverage, including suicides, is a complex matter with political economy factors often motivating what is covered. As Howard Sudak and Donna Sudak point out in their review of studies concerning media effects on suicide, “[h]eadline writers are charged with the task of attracting the reader’s attention so that overdramatization becomes a virtue.” This could be one of the reasons that some suicide stories receive prominence despite the taboo around covering these deaths—in order to attract reader attention to more sensationalistic stories. Western journalism instructor Paul Benedetti says that sensational reporting often follows celebrity suicides, whereby all the rules go out the window. There is also a tendency towards pack journalism, in which the major media outlets cover the same topics, ensuring that no one is upstaged. Russell explains that pack reporting occurs for mutual protection: each journalist is assured that his or her news judgement is right and will not be contradicted by others. Pack journalism impacts suicide coverage. When one media outlet covers a suicide story, the rest seem to follow. This means that some media outlets are compelled to offer coverage on a suicide even if they were reluctant at first. When media outlets were questioned over the heavy coverage of the suicide of Amanda Todd, the British Columbian teen who took her own life after struggling with cyber-bullying in 2012, the response was "well everyone else is doing it."

            The editor-in-Chief of the London Free Press, Joe Ruscitti, also points out that in today's Internet-driven newsroom, speed is a large factor determining how stories are covered. He explains that the Internet has changed the way things are done in journalism because it is now about who is fastest—who gets the story up first. He says to stay alive in today's news industry a media outlet has got to get the story up first, which can present problems with suicide cases. Often times a story about a body being found, for example, will go up on a news web site, but once the death is ruled a suicide, the news organization has backed itself into a corner. Most news organization then try to find a way to avoid covering the individual suicide story after already drawing attention to it, resulting in the usual line at the end of the story "no foul play is suspected." Speed is a large determining factor in present-day journalism. As Russell summarizes, "[t]he realities of deadline journalism often weigh on journalistic ethics." Enkin, says it is getting harder and harder in an all-news environment to put in those extra few lines that might make a difference in suicide stories, such as the messages encouraged by many suicide reporting guidelines. Context is often sacrificed for speed and simplicity, meaning that a complex topic such as suicide "doesn't lend itself well to daily news."

            Another important factor to consider is the sheer number of suicides that take place each year in this country. As Russell reminds us, some "news" is omitted for good reason—many stories are simply too mundane to tell. Death is not news per se, it depends on the person or circumstances. While every single homicide in Canada is reported on, suicide cannot be approached in the same manner. First of all, there are far more suicides than homicides—in 2009, there were 3,890 suicides in Canada, compared to just 610 homicides. All other factors aside, the volume of suicides alone make it difficult to report on every case. That being said, most local media will report on motor vehicle fatalities that occur within the area they serve, which while lower than the number of suicides, is much higher than the annual homicide rate. In 2009, there were 2,209 fatalities from traffic collisions in Canada. Clearly there is much more than just the large amount of suicides to consider when it comes to media coverage, however. As discussed, suicide has carried a great deal of stigma with it for centuries. It was in large part this stigma, along with the fear of a potential copycat effect (as discussed above), that led most newsrooms to take up the practice of "no suicides. Except." However, Cornies touches on what may actually be a more relevant factor in today's newsrooms though when it comes to suicide coverage. "Suicide used to be a spooky thing," he says. "There was a stigma around it, you just didn't want to touch it. Nowadays, there is still some of that but news managers more widely understand that suicide is often motivated by a mental illness; therefore, it is no more or less worthy of coverage than the effects of other illnesses."

            As newsrooms, and society at large, move away from thinking of suicide purely in a religious or criminally-stigmatizing manner, the medicalized conception of suicide seems to have taken over as the primary motivator for newsroom decisions. Enkin points out there used to be stigma around cancer; it simply was not uttered and certainly not reported on. This has clearly changed dramatically in the past few decades, making it almost hard to imagine such a prevalent and highly-discussed disease being once taboo to mention. Suicide is undergoing much of the same transformation. Stigma is being stripped away and in its place is a medicalized understanding of the phenomenon, whereby it is believed to be mainly a mental health issue and in many ways no different from death by cancer or a heart attack. Along with this change in stigma, the language surrounding this act is also evolving. While assisted suicide continues to be fought out in the court system and aiding and abetting a suicide remains a crime in Canada, the act of an individual ending his or her own life themselves is no longer in itself a crime, nor has it been for many decades now. Yet suicide is still referred to as something people "commit". The only other acts that we still refer to as being "committed" are crimes or scandalous acts, such as adultery, and even then it is seldom that "committed" is used when talking about murder, robbery or adultery. Suicide seems to be one of the last acts that we speak of as being "committed". There is a growing push to remove the term "committed" from any discussion of suicide that has now been taken up by some media organizations. Sylvia Stead, public editor at the Globe and Mail, sent a memo to Globe staff in December 2012 urging them to stop using the phrase "committed suicide" and instead to say "died by suicide."

Reporting Excellence and an Ethic of Care

            While there has been much focus on the problematic aspects surrounding media coverage of suicide, it must be acknowledged that there have been, and continue to be, extremely well done pieces on suicide that are highly regarded not just for their skill at sensitively navigating such an emotionally-charged and stigmatizing subject, but also for just plain excellence in journalistic writing. One such piece is Walt Harrington's Washington Post article "In Ricky's Wake" that was published in 1987. One of the most prominent and highly regarded journalistic pieces on suicide in the Canadian context, noted especially by journalists in the Toronto region, is the article by Liam Casey that appeared in the Ryerson Review of Journalism in 2011. Casey opens up about his own struggle with depression and contemplation of suicide, and addresses the media taboo of reporting on suicide. Kathy English, who worked with Casey at The Toronto Star, says Casey's piece opened up the eyes of journalists in Toronto. She says Casey urged editors to run help boxes with suicide stories, but this has not become a routine practice yet. In January 2014, Casey wrote another excellent piece, this time providing an inside look at the grief of George Smitherman as he prepared for his husband's funeral. Smitherman's husband, Christopher Peloso, died by suicide on December 29, 2013 and with Smitherman being such a high-profile local politician, Peloso's death was widely reported in the local media. It must be noted that Casey's Toronto Star article included the word "suicide" in the headline and did not convey any of the aspects recommended by the media guidelines issued by mental health professionals, indicating that these guidelines need to be re-examined and reconsidered. Casey wrote about Peloso's suicide in an incredibly empathetic and respectful manner, and by showcasing the grief of a family preparing to bury a loved one, Casey provides a nuanced way of highlighting the grief and devastation brought by suicide. Casey's reporting on the death of Peloso stands out as a fine example of what reporters embracing an ethic of care can produce on this sensitive subject. The ethics of care begins with the work of feminist psychologist Carole Gilligan. Instead of subscribing to abstract ethical principles, the ethic of care requires that individuals generate their philosophical and political positions by returning to the reality of daily life. According to political scientist Daniel Engster, caring makes the development and basic well-being of another its direct end; caring can be understood as including "everything we do directly to help others to meet their basic needs, develop or sustain their basic capabilities, and alleviate or avoid pain and suffering, in an attentive, responsive and respectful manner." An ethic of care stresses equality, respect and attachment as experienced in actual relationships, which John Ferré points out are values that stand in stark contrast to the distance of journalistic objectivity and abstracted rules of professional codes. Martin Bell, a former BBC correspondent, calls for a "journalism of attachment" which is "a journalism that cares as well as knows; that is aware of its responsibilities; that will not stand neutrally between good and evil, right and wrong." Media ethicist Stephen Ward points out that an ethic of care in journalism would emphasize compassion, requiring sensitivity on the part of journalists towards their story subjects and sources. Just as Romayne Smith Fullerton and Maggie Patterson  have argued in relation to media coverage of murder, an ethic of care in suicide reporting would mean a deeper and more caring probe into the causes and consequences, leading the community to wider conversations about mental health, social justice, and reconciliation. Encouraging the reporting on suicide guided by an ethic of care may be far more effective than third-party groups issuing prescriptive guidelines stating what journalists can and cannot do, and may offer a way to open up the national dialogue on suicide in this country in an empathetic and respectful manner.

References to National Guidelines for Reporting on Suicide

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. (2012). Recommendations for reporting on suicide. Accessed October 6, 2013 from:

Canadian Association for the Prevention of Suicide. (n.d.). Media guidelines. Accessed October    24, 2012 from           

International Association for Suicide Prevention. (2005). Austrian media guidelines for reporting on suicide. Accessed October 6, 2013 from:

Irish Association of Suicidology, & Samaritans. (n.d.). Media guidelines for reporting suicide        and self harm. Accessed October 6, 2013 from:        delines%202009.pdf

Nepon, J., Fotti, S., Katz, L.Y., Sareen, J., & The Swampy Cree Suicide Prevention Team. (2009). Media guidelines for reporting suicide. Canadian Psychiatric Association [Policy Paper]. Ottawa: CPA.

New Zealand Ministry of Health. (2011). Reporting suicide: A resource for the media. Accessed October 6, 2013 from:          resource-for-media-dec2011.pdf

Samaritans. (2008). Media guidelines for reporting suicide and self-harm. Accessed June 1, 2013, from:

University of Hong Kong. (n.d.). Suicide and the media: Recommendations on suicide reporting   for media professionals. Accessed October 6, 2013 from:

World Health Organization. (2008). Preventing suicide: A resource for media professionals. Accessed April 13, 2011 from: