Morning Edition's regular half-minute of filler material (known internally as a "return") is meant to be light-hearted or funny, but the July 12 report hit a wrong tone for one listener. She wrote:
I was deeply disturbed by the cavalier treatment of attempted suicide in the brief story "Man Survives Being Swept Over Niagara Falls." While other news outlets treated this story with seriousness and included links to resources for those considering suicide, the NPR story treated the entire thing like a funny joke. A man attempted to take his life and survived. Neither his attempt nor his survival should be fodder for cheap humor.
In response, Kenya Young, the show's executive producer, wrote:
After reviewing the content, we recognize that a Morning Edition return was not the right placement to deliver this kind of story. We usually take great care to include special language and the appropriate links with stories involving suicide. There was no time to do that in a 29 second return. All the more reason we should have revisited the copy before airing.
NPR overall is indeed usually careful about its reporting on suicide. With occasional exceptions, such as those I wrote about in 2018, for the most part NPR has followed the guidelines from experts. Covering the topic is particularly complicated because, according to the guidelines from medical experts, dozens of studies have found that news coverage, when done incorrectly, can increase the likelihood of suicide, even as covering the topic is important to change public misperceptions.
Weekend Edition Saturday has been grappling with that balance recently. Earlier this year, the show decided to tackle the topic of suicide in an occasional series of about a half-dozen reports that are airing over several months. Host Scott Simon said the staff had been following the increase in suicide rates in recent years, with seemingly multiple causes, and "we felt that it would be useful to try and see why that was going on." The second report, on suicide among seniors, ran Saturday; the first report, on police officer suicides, ran in May.
The staff has worked in consultation with Mark Memmott, NPR's standards and practices editor, on how it approaches the reporting.
The first report in the series, which featured a conversation among the widows of four police officers who took their own lives, quoted from a suicide note. Experts generally suggest avoiding that practice, and, "we, as a general rule, don't quote from suicide notes," said Evie Stone, supervising editor for Weekend Edition. But the quote came out as one widow was being interviewed, and "it felt like a heart-stopping, important part of her story," Stone said, so a brief reference to the note was included.
Likewise, she said, "we try to avoid talking about exactly what mechanisms people use in death by suicide." But the fact that two police officers had used their service weapons "felt particularly relevant, because as officers they have access to firearms and we all know that firearms account for about half of suicides in the United States and that's been a big part of the gun debate. So, we didn't feel like we'd be telling a complete story without including that."
She said the overall approach the show took for the first story was looking at the experts' guidelines "and then looking at how we do the story justice, and how we can let these women talk about their experiences in an honest way without sugarcoating it, but also without being emotionally manipulative to the audience."
She added, "You have to balance the danger that you pose just by talking about it to people who might be struggling themselves" and the possibility of changing some perceptions of the topic by talking about it openly.
Simon said he is personally aware of that challenge. His grandmother died by suicide and his mother memorably told him, "Suicide puts a fly in your head that never quite gets out." The show tackled the topic, he said, "certainly not wanting to cause more people to contemplate it. Yet, on the other hand, you don't want us as a society to turn away from it nor not be willing to talk about it."
Simon said that before starting to report on the topic, he was not aware that NPR guidelines (and those of AP) call for avoiding using the phrase "committed suicide." The reason, as the Associated Press notes, is that "the verb 'commit' with 'suicide' can imply a criminal act." Simon used the phrase on air in an unrelated report earlier this year, but then changed the phrasing when the report was rebroadcast later that day.
That commonly used phrase is one area where NPR's on-air reporters and hosts could do much better. They use the phrase "committed suicide" frequently, and we hear from concerned listeners when they do.
Weekend Edition Saturday's series will continue to air in the coming months.