Death and self-censorship

On Wednesday 11 August 2004, the Eagle-Tribune in Lawrence, Massachusetts, USA, published a story about the death of an Andover schoolboy (‘Boy’s death shakes classmates, teachers’). The cause of death was not revealed. Four days later, the paper’s Editor-in-chief, William B. Ketter, wrote the following column, explaining this decision. This article is reproduced with the kind permission of Mr Ketter.

How did he die?

That’s the simple question readers asked last week after perusing a story about the fifth-grader whose unexpected death at home caused school officials to send a letter to the parents of his classmates about ways to help kids cope with tragedy.

The answer was terribly difficult. But the abundance of inquiry and a vigorous staff discussion of the issue have convinced me that we made the wrong call in deliberately omitting the cause of death. The boy’s death was by suicide.

We didn’t include that fact in the story out of sensitivity to the boy’s family and because of the newspaper’s policy of only reporting suicide that’s committed in public or by a public or well-known figure. Self-inflicted death done in the privacy of a home usually doesn’t make the paper.

This, however, was not your usual private suicide, if there is such a thing.

The victim was only 11 years old. Additionally, because of his popularity with his peers, the school’s principal felt compelled to reach out to the community with advice on how to handle what she described as an “untimely death.” That also is unusual.

It is the exceptional that often makes life and death especially newsworthy. So does public interest and reader desire to know what happened, why it happened and how it happened. In other words, to know the complete story. Or as complete as we can assemble the details and still publish a timely story.

All of which argues for making an exception to our suicide reporting policy in the case of the boy’s death. We were not, in this instance, completely honest with our readers, and that is an obligation that we take seriously every day. It goes to the heart of our believability.

Most of the readers who contacted the paper understood and even sympathized with our reasons for not publishing the cause of the boy’s death. They also made the powerful point that if the story about it was important enough to put in the paper, then we had a responsibility to tell our readers how he died.

“If it is a story,” said a caller, “don’t tell me half of it. That just leaves me scratching my head, trying to imagine what happened. Give me the entire story or none at all.”

Another said she did not expect the paper to carry “the specific details of how he died, but surely there was a delicate way for you to tell me that he took his own life. That’s such an important element to a story like this.”

Still others offered the logic that parents in the community could better explain the death to their children if they knew how the boy died. That would allow them, they said, to talk about how despondency can lead to someone taking his or her life, and why it is important to seek help when you feel desperately depressed or melancholy.

Claire Gauthier of Andover is a mother who wants the media to talk straight on suicide as a way to help prevent it. Her son took his life several years ago while in high school, causing her to organize an intervention program that includes friends and acquaintances offering to help a victim’s family overcome the special grief connected with suicide.

Gauthier’s advice to the community was in our story about the boy’s death. But there was no reference to the circumstance of her son’s death even though she fully expected it. We removed that detail for fear it would signal our readers the cause of the boy’s death and thus void our self-censorship of that element.

Again, it was a mistake to finesse Gauthier’s personal story. She was speaking specifically to death by suicide, with a very forceful message. Context was important.

“People are afraid to reach out sometimes because they think they are intruding,” Gauthier said. “Do not be afraid to reach out to the victims. They appreciate it. My thought was that it was wonderful that they came and I knew I could call on them.”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that more than 30,000 Americans take their lives every year. That’s a suicide every 17 minutes, making it among the 10 leading causes of death in the United States.

Newspapers have long been squeamish about suicide, for the same reason we don’t identify the victims of sex crimes. There’s a traditional social stigma attached to both even though there should not be. Perhaps more education through the media would help change that.

Reporting on suicide also raises questions of privacy and adding to the sadness of the victim’s family. And if it is done in private, the reasoning goes, why does it matter if others are left wondering about the cause of death.

One thing is evident from our dealing with last week’s story about the little boy’s death. An absolutist policy on suicide doesn’t work. We need to pick our way with care every time we’re confronted with self-inflicted death and, at the same time, stay true to our obligation to be honest brokers of the news.

William B. Ketter is editor-in-chief of the Eagle-Tribune newspapers. He can be contacted at or (978) 946-2233.