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Public editor: Globe stories on suicide show restraint

Flowers are placed in memory of actor and comedian Robin Williams on his Walk of Fame star in the Hollywood district of Los Angeles, Aug. 11, 2014.

Kevork Djansezian/Associated Press

I heard this week from both health-care professionals and readers about the coverage of Robin Williams's suicide after my earlier blog and it reinforced to me that the writers must always think of the audience. The readership reflects society and many are personally dealing with depression and other illnesses.

In fact, 20 per cent of Canadians will personally experience a mental illness in their lifetime. And if you extend that to family members, friends and colleagues who are trying to help, it is a very large number of Canadians reading and consuming the news who also have personal dealings with mental illness.

Here's one letter that brought that point home in the most poignant way. I asked the writer for permission to use it here without a name and the writer agreed:

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"I write regarding your recent column on the coverage of Mr. Williams' death. Mr. Williams' suicide has shaken me, in part because, like many, I identified with the man I imagined him to be from watching his work, and in part because, like Mr. Williams', I have been diagnosed as bipolar and struggled with some of the same issues. As disturbing as the knowledge that some 20% of those with my condition will end their own lives, the idea that someone so successful, with access to the very best treatment, a loving wife and family, and many friends and colleagues could still succumb is particularly saddening and frightening.

"Your point that 'The Globe's articles said Mr. Williams died by asphyxia due to hanging. In my view, that was as much as should have been said about his death. The how is not important' resonated with me particularly. Like Mr. Williams, I tried to hang myself. … As you suggest, I'm not sure what, if any, positive purpose publishing the details of Mr. Williams' death furthers. I suspect none, other than the worst ghoulish voyeurism and the basest commercial interests.

"Thank you to The Globe for its restraint."

I edited out some of the information here in the ellipsis to be consistent with the idea that the details aren't important. Fortunately, his suicide attempt failed, but he is understandably anxious about reading and recalling.

As Globe and Mail health columnist André Picard wrote in the Mindset guide: "The goal should be to cover suicide/mental health the way we cover everything else, factually and respectfully (but no special rules.)"

Every day journalists make decisions on what information to include or not include in all their stories, not just those about mental illness or suicide.

While the staff articles showed restraint and said only that Mr. Williams died of asphyxia or hanging, unfortunately a Reuters wire story posted by The Globe online included far too much unnecessary detail about Mr. Williams's death.

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Doctors' motto of "first do no harm" is a good one for journalists to consider as well in the case of mental illness.

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About the Author
Public Editor

Sylvia Stead has been a reporter and editor at the Globe since 1975, after graduating from the University of Western Ontario in Journalism with a minor in Political Science. She won the Board of Governors Award there in 1974. As a reporter, Sylvia covered courts, education and Queen's Park. More


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