Tragic events happen on campus; it is inappropriate to report on many of them. Should a student-journalist choose to cover such an event, there are a host of accessible resources available to guide their reporting. All this seems to have been lost on The Prince, who published the article “Individual rushed to hospital after alleged hanging in Scully” in the lead up to fall break.
At the beginning of the article, The Prince notes that the the incident might have involved a suicide attempt, immediately entering private and morally-difficult territory. I therefore believe it is reasonable to hold the author to the standards of journalism outlined by mental health charities, which explain how to report such a story. Much of their advice is common sense (although was still disregarded by the author), some may be less obvious; irrespective of this, all journalists at Princeton should be aware of these guidelines.
My initial problem with the article is the information and language it included. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) warns against using “big or sensationalist headlines”. The Prince falls at the first hurdle, using the dramatic description of someone being “rushed to hospital” after an “alleged hanging.” Journalists are also advised to minimise coverage of the nature of the act; The Prince places this centre-stage. The article continues to dramatise the event, describing the victim in the ambulance, after emergency workers “performed CPR at the scene.” This contradicts the recommendations, based on empirical studies, to prevent suicide contagion.
The second piece of advice from the AFSP: don’t include photos or videos of the method or location. Again, The Prince adds a photo of ambulances leaving the scene, taken by the author. Continuing in this vein, the article ends with a description of the victim. To describe their clothing, gender and hair colour is an invasion of privacy, and further leaves open the possibility that someone may be able to identify them. We often afford commonly accepted dignities to those in deeply private situations; similarly, the student involved in this tragic event should not be partially identified by a newspaper.
My second, broad concern is with the content omitted from the article. Rather than focusing on the details of the event, the National Institute of Mental Health recommends the media include “statement(s) about the many treatment options available“, as well as to “consider quoting a suicide prevention expert on causes and treatments”. Princeton University Health Services run a sophisticated counselling service, yet this was entirely overlooked by the author, who did not reach out to an on-campus expert for a quote, or include information about the support available.
This kind of reporting is no trivial matter: two studies in Vienna have shown that restrained and thoughtful coverage of suicides leads to fewer attempts. In 1978, Vienna’s subway opened, and tragically the number of suicide attempts across the city increased. These events were sensationalised by the media, triggering a toxic spiral in which increased coverage precipitated more attempts and vice versa. When press guidelines were introduced in 1987, the effect was significant: subway suicides and non-fatal attempts fell by 80% in the first six months of the campaign to encourage responsible reporting, and remained as low for at least 5 years. The Werther Effect, which describes the increase in attempts by people to take their lives after well publicised suicides, has been confirmed in a number of experiments, both examining real world data and through computer models. The Werther Effect is most commonly attributed to the sensationalisation of an initial attempt by journalists. It takes its name from the protagonist in Goethe’s novel Die Leiden des jungen Werthers, who triggered a spate of similar suicides after he took his own life at the end of the book.
The Prince’s problem with suicide begins in its “Code of Ethics,” which is given to new recruits. The Prince recommends using the term “committed suicide”, again setting themselves at odds with most mental health charities (which recommend instead saying that a person “took their own life”). Suicide has only recently been decriminalised; in 1963, six US states still considered it a crime. Using language like “commit suicide” harks back to the days when it would have equated to committing a crime. It’s a small change in terminology, but one that is more objective and has fewer pejorative connotations. The Prince should ensure that this is incorporated into its code.
I am still undecided myself whether I would have published an article in the first place. There is a real need to protect the privacy of all concerned in such a situation, but I also see a genuine benefit, demonstrated by the studies in Vienna, in restrained and informed coverage. But this is irrelevant when discussing The Prince’s article: they dangerously sensationalised events, and provided none of the important advice that mental health charities recommend. For a group that claims to write the history of the university, this was astoundingly irresponsible.