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Columnist
Some suicides require coverage, but always with sensitivity
By Jim Slusher | Daily Herald Columnist
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Published: 8/30/2007 12:14 AM

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Sad though it is, covering tragedy is a mainstay of daily news reporting. When people are injured or die violently, a wide range of factors come into play to make that newsworthy -- including simple reader curiosity, the value of showing the material effects of violence on human beings, the opportunity to help others avoid circumstances that could end tragically and many others. But when a violent or sudden death is suicide, it confounds all these aims and commands us to examine our work even more carefully.

The coverage of an individual suicide may hold lessons for the public at large, but finding those lessons often requires a much deeper look at a victim's circumstances than the raw facts of a typical news story allow. Moreover, studies have suggested that reporting on suicide can attract the attention of people who may be at risk for suicide or give victims an almost heroic aura in the minds of people at risk.

For these reasons, the Daily Herald, like most news organizations, avoids reporting on suicide or suicide attempts except in cases involving prominent figures, public deaths or an overriding public interest. Unfortunately, those exceptions have made it into our pages with disturbing frequency in recent days and weeks.

Among the most gut-wrenching examples has been the case of Nimisha Tiwari, who police say set fire to her Naperville home, killing herself and her two young children two weeks ago. Although we strive to avoid reporting suicides, circumstances sometimes demand otherwise, and the case of a mother who takes her two children with her in a fire certainly attracts the kind of public attention that requires reporting. In this case, attempting to get at the overriding question in such a heartbreaking case -- why? -- required reporting on apparent troubles involving the Tiwari family. We have tried to approach the story sensitively, and we hope Christy Gutowski's interview with Anand Tiwari, Nimisha's estranged husband and father of their two children, helped provide some perspective for this highly publicized tragedy and, if nothing else, showed the broad hardship and personal suffering that a murder-suicide creates. Unfortunately, even as I write this on Wednesday, it appears we must report on a similar case involving a woman killed by a train in Cary whose daughter was later found dead.

It is impossible to ignore such stories, which naturally generate so much community interest, raise so many questions and spur so many rumors that clear, direct reporting can dispel. I'm not sure where those concerns came into play in a wire story we carried Wednesday about a presumed suicide attempt by actor Owen Wilson. Naturally, a celebrity's attempt to kill himself raises questions people want answered. But the focus of this particular wire piece so stressed issues of how this near-tragedy would affect Wilson's career that it came off as decidedly insensitive.

I should add that some people argue for more detailed reporting on suicides. When I've written about the topic in the past, I've received well-reasoned and compassionate responses from family members touched by suicide who believe that more information, not less, could help dissuade people from hurting themselves. But so far, we have decided to err, if err we must, on the side of research and the many voices urging restraint.

Any violent or unexpected death is a terrible thing, and must be carefully reported. Reporting on murder does not necessarily lead to more murder; reporting on suicide might lead to more suicide. With that in mind, we take care -- and sometimes should take still more -- to ensure that our reporting is not just sensitive to victims and their families, but also will not give ideas or inspiration to troubled people who may be entirely unrelated.