Paper aims to balance need to know, privacy

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Suicide. Few words can rip out the heart of a family like this one. Death is always an emotional time, but the turmoil and mental anguish surrounding this act hits family members and friends like a Mike Tyson blow to the midsection. They can't breathe. They can't get the panic out of their minds. They can't keep their balance or stop shaking.

Unfortunately, this happens more than most people realize.

Suicides are also difficult for newspapers. There may be some benefit to the public to know when this happens. But running a story can also be pouring salt into the raw wound the family is nursing.

After much discussion, debate and research, the Union-Bulletin years ago implemented a policy that limits when we would report suicides. Our guiding belief is this is a very private personal situation that doesn't need public intrusion. So as a general rule we will not report a suicide as long as it remains a private situation.

However, there are a few limited situations in which we will report on a suicide. First, if the act was public and not private. For example, if someone jumps off a downtown building at rush hour the victim made the suicide a public rather than a private affair. We would report that.

If the person was a public figure we would report on it. A public figure would include elected officials. The public has a right to know about their elected representatives. And because it would require replacing this person in office, the facts around the death would be known. Certain high-profile public employees would also fall into this category. This could include school administrators, teachers, police officers and correctional officers. There are also some people whose jobs or activities put them into the public light so often that they are considered public figures. This might include prominent businessmen, private college administrators or leaders of agencies such as the YMCA or United Way.

There have also been times when a person who may or may not have fit into one of these categories years ago has decided to end his or her life. We have been approached by the families in these cases with the request that we report what happened. They want people to know why it happened and they don't want to have to answer this question themselves countless times. In those situations, we have honored the families' wishes.

It may not be a perfect policy, and there are still situations that fall into a gray area that requires us to re-examine what we do and make a decision on the specific case. However, we have tried to balance the families' suffering and the public's need to know. We have presented this policy to our Community Council members, a diverse group of local citizens who meet with the Union-Bulletin leadership to discuss the newspaper. The members of this group, which changes annually, have given us assurances that we are being as fair and consistent as we can be.

If we find there is a need to do more to alert the public to a problem, we find a way to discuss overall numbers or feature places where people can get help or provide a list of warning signs. Our objective has been -- and always will be -- to keep the public informed. But we also try to do it in a way that does as little additional harm to the survivors as possible.

Rick Doyle can be reached at rickdoyle@wwub.com or 526-8306.

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