2. Suicide and the public interest

The Spectator’s ethics guidelines indicate that suicide should not be reported unless there is a “public need to know” [1].

But how, exactly, should that public interest be defined?

As a societal issue, there is no question that reporting on suicide is in the public interest, according to CBC ombudsman Esther Enkin, who co-wrote the 2014 handbook “Mindset: Reporting on Mental Health.” In fact, Enkin says the media has a responsibility to encourage conversations around suicide. As she puts it, “What is more in the public interest than alleviating suffering and dealing with the societal issues around depression, or the stigma of suffering from mental illness?”

Suicide is an important topic, but its prevalence raises problems for journalists. Newspapers need some kind of framework for determining which suicides are worthy of coverage.

Watch Jim Poling describe the different conversations that existed around reporting on suicide in 2005 and today:

According to The Spectator’s code of ethics, the public has a right to know about a suicide when it is “a very public act of suicide, or suicide by a very public figure” [2].

Robbins felt that the public nature of the police officer’s suicide — in the White Chapel Memorial Gardens, a prominent cemetery in west Hamilton — immediately set it apart as a story of public interest.

“If this had been someone who had gone to their home and had taken a less violent course, then this would probably not be a conversation that we would be having today,” he says. “But this was a violent extinguishing of a life in a public place by a person who has a public profile, in the sense that they’re a police officer, while they were on duty.”

Clairmont agrees. “We felt — I felt — that we owed it to the public to explain what was happening. I think people always have a right to know what’s going on in their own community.”

The fact that the incident occurred in a public place raised further questions for Clairmont about public safety. After all, there may very well have been witnesses to the incident. If that was the case, Clairmont felt the newspaper had an obligation to inform the public about the incident in order to answer their questions and quell their concerns.

“If I was walking my dog through that cemetery that day, and saw a police officer dead in his car — or didn’t even know it was a police officer… and just saw a man, dead, in his car — I’d be pretty terrified,” says Clairmont.

The Spectator’s ethics code implies that suicide that does not involve a crime or otherwise put the public at risk is a personal matter, and generally not worthy of reporting. But, as Robbins points out, there were often other, more complicated elements at play that could affect the public interest of a story. Thus, reporting on suicide was typically conducted on a case-by-case basis.

For Clairmont and her colleagues, this particular incident was clearly an exception to the general rule. Says Clairmont, “The fact that he did it on duty, with his gun, in his car — made it, for me, a policing issue. More so than if he had died at home or somewhere else.”

Still, there were other factors to consider that gave some of the reporters and editors in the room pause.

Hear Dana Robbins discuss another incident that highlights the subtleties of determining public interest in suicide reporting.

Next: Privacy versus the public’s right to know


[1] Spectator Staff. The Hamilton Spectator Code of Ethics. 2006. Print. 13 Dec. 2014.

[2] Ibid.