When a team led by Western University journalism professor Cliff Lonsdale created Mindset: Reporting on Mental Health in 2014, their goal was to help Canadian journalists navigate a wide range of issues connected with mental health. Use of the guide is intended to decrease stigma surrounding mental-health issues, and improve reporting on the subject.
Today, Lonsdale admits that the first two editions of the guide were lacking in the category of suicide. The suicide chapter was originally written to help reporters write about specific deaths and incidents of suicide, but did not provide guidance for telling longer, in-depth stories.
Watch Cliff Lonsdale talk about the lack of guidance for suicide stories:
In any case, Roumeliotis and her team had to make their decisions without clear guidance about the type of story Roumeliotis and her team they wanted to tell. So, they reached out to mental health and suicide prevention experts.
According to Sinyor, getting expert opinions and asking the right questions is essential to reporting on suicide responsibly. Without the benefit of guidance from psychiatrists and other mental health professionals, reporters might unknowingly make mistakes that could have life-or-death consequences.
Watch Dr. Mark Sinyor discuss getting expert opinions:
Roumeliotis and her team reached out to many experts in March and April of 2019, parallel to their conversations with the TTC. Some refused even to even have a pre-interview conversation, citing the risks of any in-depth story on suicide.
Also declining to share their experience with suicides were those running Canada’s other underground transit system, Montreal’s Métro. The Société de transport de Montréal (STM) maintained a policy similar to what the TTC was now adjusting.
The abundant caution about sharing expertise with the CBC team didn’t surprise Sinyor. “My suspicion on why those people don’t want to share it is that they feel no communication may be better than poor communication,” he says. Not reporting at all may still be a journalist’s wisest course, he says.
Watch Dr. Mark Sinyor talk about the tiers of suicide communication:
But the refusal of some experts even to talk to the team was alarming. Roumeliotis and her team began wondering: were the story’s risks worth it?