Public Editor: How can journalists ethically report on a student’s death?

Experts say reporting can cause contagion; where does The Varsity stand on principled journalism in these cases?
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Content warning: discussions of suicide.

Some journalistic practices, such as including details about suicide or adding the word “suicide” in headlines, can potentially make suicide contagious, according to a study published by the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ).

The study identified significant associations between elements of media reports and suicide deaths. It touched on how reporting on suicide can have a meaningful impact on suicide deaths. In short, it says that journalists and media outlets should carefully consider the specific content of articles before publication.

Following the death by suicide of a University of Toronto student at UTSG more than a month ago, the question of whether The Varsity does a good enough job reporting on suicide is something worth looking into.

For the most part, The Varsity has noticeably taken steps to ensure that its readers are properly being walked through sensitive storytelling. For example, every story pertaining to the topic of suicide begins with an advisory message, such as “Content warning: discussions of suicide.”

It’s a popular belief in many newsrooms that one should only report on suicide if there is some overriding public interest in doing so, an example of this is the Toronto Star’s policy on the matter.

In our case, reporting on a student’s death can be of public interest, seeing as this was the third death by suicide of a U of T student in the span of  over 16 months, and students across all three campuses have been demanding better access to mental health support for some time now.

In an interview with Time, Dr. Ayal Schaffer, a psychiatry professor at U of T who co-authored the CMAJ study, said that reporting on suicide is not the problem, rather it’s how it’s being done where the trouble lies.

“Our goal is not to blame journalists; it’s not to tell journalists how to do their jobs. But it is to provide a pretty strong research base to support specific guidelines about how reporting on suicide should be done,” Schaffer said in the interview.   

Time noted that the research analyzed stories published between 2011 and 2014 on the topic of suicide that appeared in 13 publications with wide circulations in Toronto. It found nearly 17,000 stories that mentioned suicide, including 6,367 articles where suicide was the major focus. It is worth noting that about 950 people in Toronto reportedly died by suicide during this timespan.

When searching for how many stories The Varsity has written with the word “suicide” mentioned, there were over 500 results. To some, this is a large number of stories circulating around suicide, and to others — given that The Varsity has written countless stories over the years — it is an insignificant number.

According to Josie Kao, Editor-in-Chief of The Varsity, she found herself, like many journalists, covering an “alarming number of deaths on campus” when she was acting as News Editor last year. Kao then decided that The Varsity needed a responsible guide on reporting on suicide.

“We know that we have a huge responsibility as a media organization to prevent contagion and at the same time de-stigmatize mental illness,” Kao wrote.

These guidelines included which terms to use when reporting on suicide, as well as in the event that a death occurs on campus in a public place, on campus in a private place, or off campus.

“Not all situations warrant reporting on… because the risk of suicide contagion is so high. I’m extremely proud of the work that the paper has undertaken since I began working here, and I truly believe that student journalism is at the forefront of responsible reporting on suicide,” Kao added.

It’s important to ask how students on all three campuses at U of T feel about upsetting stories that are told every day. Does it make them feel informed about what is going on on campus and equip them with all the information needed to confront the school and demand change?

Or does it instead make them feel scared that someone who walked the same halls, sat in the same lecture hall, ate at the same cafeteria, wrote the same exams, might one day want to end their life? Or what if they themselves feel that they can also take their life because others are doing so?

I would like to know how readers feel about this topic and where they stand, reading the tragic circumstances surrounding one of their own.

As your newest public editor, I want to make it my mission to look at both sides of the reader’s perspective so that we can work together in creating an educational, yet safe, environment for all.

Osobe Waberi is The Varsity’s Public Editor and can be reached at publiceditor@thevarsity.ca.

Disclosure: Osobe Waberi is currently a staff writer at the Toronto Star.


If you or someone you know is in distress, you can call:

Canada Suicide Prevention Service phone available 24/7 at 1-833-456-4566

Good 2 Talk Student Helpline at 1-866-925-5454

Ontario Mental Health Helpline at 1-866-531-2600

Gerstein Centre Crisis Line at 416-929-5200

U of T Health & Wellness Centre at 416-978-8030.

Warning signs of suicide include:

Talking about wanting to die

Looking for a way to kill oneself

Talking about feeling hopeless or having no purpose

Talking about feeling trapped or being in unbearable pain

Talking about being a burden to others

Increasing use of alcohol or drugs

Acting anxious, agitated, or recklessly

Sleeping too little or too much

Withdrawing or feeling isolated

Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge

Displaying extreme mood swings

The more of these signs a person shows, the greater the risk. If you suspect someone you know may be contemplating suicide, you should talk to them, according to the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention.

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