Speaking of Suicide: Steve Stephens and Responsible Reporting

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Speaking of Suicide: Steve Stephens and Responsible Reporting

By Pauline Campos 04/25/17

“Risk of additional suicides increases when the story explicitly describes the suicide method, uses dramatic/ graphic headlines or images, and repeated/extensive coverage sensationalizes or glamorizes a death.”

Image: 
A woman holding a newspaper, looking depressed.
Copycat suicides can be triggered by explicit or sensationalized coverage.

We need to talk about how we talk about suicide. We need to talk about how suicides are reported in the media. Maybe most importantly, we need to talk about how we talk about suicide when the deceased is known to have committed a crime prior to dying by suicide.

The Foundation for Suicide Prevention recommends responsible reporting of suicide to prevent "suicide contagion” - copycat suicides or suicide clusters - a proven phenomenon in which at risk individuals can be triggered to act by reading or watching a news story in which certain factors - such as mention of method and glamorizing or sensationalizing death - are present in the coverage. News stories with dramatic/graphic headlines, or images, also can lead to contagion suicide. 

Now we need to talk about Facebook murderer Steve Stephens and why we must stop referring to suicide as the “easy way out,” even when the individual being discussed has committed a crime prior to their own death. Before you jump to the conclusion that I am defending Stephens, or any other murderers or criminals who engaged in violent acts that resulted in the deaths or major bodily harm to others, let me explain.

We all know the story. On Easter Sunday, 37-year old Stephens shot and killed Cleveland retiree, Robert Godwin Sr., while the 74-year-old father of 10 and grandfather of 14 was out collecting aluminum cans. Stephens recorded the horrifying event on video and then uploaded it to his Facebook account. The smartphone Stephens used to record Godwin’s murder recoiled when he pulled the trigger, sparing the viewers from actually witnessing the very moment he had intended to record, but, news reports stated, quickly panned back to show Godwin lying on the pavement in a pool of blood. A massive manhunt ensued only to end two days later after a police chase, when Stephens died by suicide after McDonald’s employees notified police that he was in the drive-thru lane. 

News outlets scrambled. Nearly every story I found in my research not only included a screenshot of the PA State Police tweet, which as of this writing has been liked 43,065 times and retweeted 1.4 thousand times, but also stated the method by which Stephens died. Many also used the phrase “committed suicide,” in their headlines, which stigmatizes those who die by or attempt suicide. As explained on Speaking of Suicide, a site for suicidal individuals and their loved ones, the word “committed” itself is the problem. 

People commit murders. People commit rape. Acts such as these are inexcusable crimes against another. People do not commit suicide, and it is no longer a crime in the United States. 

Note my phrasing above: died by suicide. I also did not mention the method with which Stephens chose to end his own life. Not only is the method unnecessary to the story, but excluding details such as this could save lives.

So how do we practice responsible reporting when the subject matter is as charged as the death by suicide of a criminal on the run?

The Washington Post did almost everything right in this report (my only criticism is the use of the word “committed”). They used a non-sensationalized headline and refrained from mentioning the method Stephens used to end his life, even in image captions, which I commend. However, and this reflects directly on the police officials speaking to the media and the triggering language they used, mention of method could not be avoided altogether once quotes from law enforcement officials involved in this case were introduced. 

According to the World Health Organization, more than 50 studies indicate that “Risk of additional suicides increases when the story explicitly describes the suicide method, uses dramatic/ graphic headlines or images, and repeated/extensive coverage sensationalizes or glamorizes a death.” If irresponsible reporting is proven to cause harm, why is it the norm?

An msn.com story about a man accused of repeatedly raping a 10-year-old girl and then burning down her home, killing her and family members, showed a security video of him taking action that led to his death earlier this week (his death is not shown, but the video didn't need to be shown, either). The video itself seems to have been removed, replaced by one that explains what happened. Still images have replaced the video of the moments leading to his death; but the video, of course, is still available on YouTube, easily found with a quick Google search. Convicted murderer and Former New England Patriot Aaron Hernandez died by suicide in his jail cell, also this week, and in a separate column, The Boston Globe headline asks how he could “throw it all away.” (Trigger warning on clicking the link on Hernandez’ name: the headline is done responsibly but mention of method is in the first paragraph.) He had just been acquitted of a double murder, and his attorneys were appealing the conviction for the murder for which he was serving a life sentence. The column not only mentions the method by which Hernandez died, but also hits a few more trigger points by using words like “tragedy,” “waste,” and “weakness.” While suicides, of course, are tragic, the tone of the word in the column seems as dismissive as the use of the words "waste" and "weakness."

I used to cover crime when I worked in the newsroom. I wasn’t perfect; my own motivation lay in getting the story. I didn’t think, not then, about the effect my words had on those struggling with their own minds to live. I hadn't yet processed my own attempt, and had yet to educate myself on the the very real ramifications of my words. If we fail to consider the consequences of our word choices, even when presented with hard evidence that certain types of reporting can increase the likelihood of suicide, then we are prioritizing viewers or clicks over human lives.

It gets even uglier on Twitter, with users joking about Hernandez' suicide, referencing football terminology and referee calls for fouls. The silver lining is in the few who are calling these tweets out, asking why they can’t see the pathetic irony in how their calls for suicide prevention and awareness inspired by 13 Reasons Why, a Netflix series based on a best-selling book about the aftermath of a teen's suicide, seem empty when pitted against jokes about Hernandez’s death. To add to the irony, the Netflix series is facing its own wave of criticism over whether its portrayal of suicide was responsible and sensitive.

Good riddance.

They did us all a favor.

Cowards.

What a waste of a life.

Every single one of these statements in a story or column is a potential trigger for a suicidal person reading. Each of these comments on your Facebook page or Twitter account can cause harm.. I'm not saying you are not entitled to your opinions and I am most certainly not saying that these criminals deserve to have their memories treated with respect, because, quite frankly, I'm not here for them. I extend my deepest condolences to the families of the victims and to the innocent families of the criminals, but I’m not here for Hernandez. I’m not here for the dead rapist. And I am not here for Stephens or any emotional pain he may have suffered in his final moments. He gave up his right to empathy and compassion the minute he murdered Godwin. 

No matter what I think of these men and the countless other individuals who have committed murder prior to dying by suicide, as a survivor or my own attempt, I only ask you to think before speaking; to think before writing and publishing. The tweets sent out by the Pennsylvania State Police and the resulting headlines should have read “Stephens Died by Suicide After Manhunt; Murdering Innocent Man.” Because that is exactly what happened. 
 

If you or someone you know may be at risk for suicide, immediately seek help. You are not alone.

Options include:

Calling the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 800-273-TALK (8255)
Calling 911
Calling a friend or family member to stay with you until emergency medical personnel arrive to help you.

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Pauline Campos is an artist, Aspie-Mom, and author of Be Your Own F*cking Sunshine: An Inspirational Journal for People Who Like to Swear. ADHD is her superpower. Pauline Lives in Minnesota, but will always be from Detroit. Find her at aspiringmama.com. Twitter: @pauline_campos.

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