By Leah Roman
and Jennifer Taylor
Last week's news that the late Philadelphia firefighter John "Jack" Slivinski would be featured on the cover of the "Nation's Bravest" calendar reminded us of media coverage of his suicide in June. It was often at odds with recommendations for reporting on suicide released this year by a consortium of public health, suicide prevention, Internet safety, and journalism experts.
Slivinski's suicide was the subject of intense coverage, but the concerns it raises are not unique. Just in the past two weeks, there was extensive reporting on the suicides of Rudolf Alexandrov, a Chestnut Hill College professor, and Jeret "Speedy" Peterson, an Olympic skier.
After Slivinski's death in June, NBC10 tweeted the headline "Calendar Firefighter Shoots Self in Head." Philly.com's banner headline was "Firefighter who posed shirtless committed suicide." The Philadelphia media also ran shirtless photographs of Slivinski from the "Nation's Bravest" shoot.
The recent expert recommendations (http://reportingonsuicide.org) encourage media outlets reporting on suicides to avoid prominent story placement and sensational headlines. They also advise that they use school, work, or family photos to accompany such stories.
While the headlines about Slivinski were no doubt meant to draw in readers, this type of storytelling can have unintended public-health consequences. It can lead to misperceptions about suicide and "suicide contagion," inadvertently encouraging more suicides. It can also oversimplify the complex factors that lead to suicide by focusing on a single cause of distress, such as the controversial calendar shoot that caused turmoil at work for Slivinski.
The language used in the headlines and stories was also contrary to recommendations. "Committed suicide" was the phrase chosen for the philly.com headline in June and for many of the stories last week. The experts recommended such phrases as "died by suicide," which states the facts without judgment. Words like committed, which is associated with crime, should be avoided.
Multiple articles also described the weapon used in the suicide and the part of the body it was used on. The recommendations urge the media to avoid detailing the context and means of suicide, which raises the risk of additional suicides.
Finally, experts advise that these stories be used to inform readers about the causes of suicide, treatment of those at risk, and resources. The stories we reviewed didn't include that kind of information. At a minimum, such stories should mention the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, a 24-hour, toll-free, confidential service, at 1-800-273-TALK, or www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org.
In the age of social media, when information can "go viral" with ease, it's even more important for the media to report on suicide in a safe manner. Research shows that unsafe reporting has real consequences. Media outlets that engage in it are putting their audience's lives at risk.