There was a tragedy in Philadelphia this weekend. A 19-year-old woman committed suicide by jumping to her death from an elevated parking garage. She was a student at the University of Pennsylvania, a top athlete, a high achiever in the classroom, and -- according to news accounts (more on that in a second) a relentlessly cheerful young woman on social media. Her death raises all the questions that all of us struggle with when we learn of such a loss. Why did no one pick up on the warning signs? Could anyone have done something to prevent this? Even more simply...why?
I asked these questions reading about the 19-year-old student -- because I ask these questions every time I think about suicide. Whether the victim is a young man or an elderly woman, whether the reason is a romantic breakup or financial hardship or clinical depression, I find (and so do most of you reading this) every suicide to be equally troubling, equally heartbreaking.
Emphasis on the word equal.
But there is one place that all suicides are not created equal -- the news media.
Even I've been shocked at what seems to be becoming a media frenzy over this one woman's death. I can tell you from 30 years in journalism working at several newspapers that there is a generally accepted rule. Individual suicides are not covered at all -- unless a) the person committing suicide is a well-known member of the community whose death would have been newsworthy regardless of the cause b) the suicide is committed in a public place and witnessed by a large number of citizens. Even then, the coverage of scenario b) is typically what journalists call a "brief" -- it might not even mention the name of the deceased. In this case, by jumping to death in a high-trafficked part of the city, the tragedy did merit some local coverage. I thought the coverage in the Daily News and on Philly.com was a little more than we usually, and I was a little troubled whether it was a bit intrusive.
But our coverage paled in comparison to New York City tabloids, when they stepped in. The New York Post didn't even try to mask its interest in the story, calling the woman "beautiful" at the top and -- in a word I never thought I'd see in this type of article -- "stunning." I thought that was shameful -- exploiting the woman's looks to get a few extra clicks on the Internet. Then I happened to check out the National home page of the New York Daily News, and what is their lead story? "19-year-old freshman UPenn track star had 'changed' over the last few days and jumped to her death due to stress: Friend." Accompanied by not one but three pictures of the woman who died this weekend. (No links, for obvious reasons.)
This is exploitative, and this is shameful. It needs to stop -- now. This is the lead story on a major news website on Martin Luther King Day -- a day devoted to the idea that all men and women are created equal. Would the suicide of a 19-year-old woman from a poor neighborhood attending community college or -- to use the MLK analogy -- a 39-year-old but-not-famous black minister from Atlanta -- received this style of almost leering coverage? Yes, this woman went to an Ivy League university, and she was very beautiful.
We are all very beautiful, in unique and special ways.
One night about six months ago, I was riding home from work on the Market Street subway and the train came to an abrupt and frightening stop just short of the 15th Street station. A woman had jumped to her death in front of the train I was riding on. I was sad, and I was also curious. But other than the Daily News brief (which I phoned into the paper), there was never another word about it. I guess this woman didn't meet some editor's notion of "stunning."
(And there's a debate that needs to be had on how far the media will go in 2014 to get Internet traffic -- involving not just this case but why the popular website Grantland felt the need to out a transgendered inventor in over-reporting a relatively trivial story -- reporting that caused the subject of that article to commit suicide... as then reported in a much-clicked story.)
There's a real irony here. The biggest problem with the way that newsrooms cover suicide is actually that we don't cover enough, not in the right way. Since the economy tanked in 2008 and middle-aged workers became expendable, there has been an epidemic in suicides among Americans over 50 -- but that has barely been reported in the media. There have been a couple of communities in Delaware County, where I live, that have seen more than one young person commit suicide -- and one is way too many. Maybe in this case, when the shock has worn off, the family of the Penn student would want to speak out, as a way to reach others. If so, that should be their choice.
Maybe if the media was more honest in the way that we cover both suicide and the types of mental illness that lead to suicide, there would be less of a stigma in talking about these problems. And less of stigma would be a huge step to doing something about it. I can't imagine a greater act of public service.
I don't have all the answers in how the media can better cover suicide -- I just know the embarrassing exploitation of this one suicide in Philadelphia isn't it.