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Compassion before details — Minimizing harm a priority in journalistic decisions

Submitted by on 01.24.2013 – 9:26 pm

The Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics says journalists should “seek truth and report it,” but also “minimize harm.” When covering sensitive issues such as student death, The Argonaut makes decisions based on this principle.There are several misconceptions surrounding the suicide on campus Jan. 19. There are also misconceptions about the way news organizations cover suicide. Suicide is a dark, personal and sensitive subject. The decision about how to report it is not black and white.
In journalism, ethical issues arise daily — from releasing the name of person who died to asking people for permission to use their photos — and covering suicide is no exception.
Every media entity handles the topic differently. The Argonaut’s team of editors made an ethical choice to outline only the bare facts of the Jan. 19 suicide in a news brief Wednesday out of respect. Looking back, perhaps more coverage would have dispelled the rumors surrounding the incident and provided our readers with a sense of security, but we did what we thought was right at the time for the victim, the victim’s family and all involved.
Public service is the core of journalism. At The Argonaut, we take our role not only as a source of information and public servant, but also as a community member, seriously. The campus is hurting. Students, staff, faculty, friends and family members are mourning, and we chose to give them time do to so.
By the time we learned of the incident, it was no longer a public safety risk. A private individual chose to take his life in a private setting. Had this been an active shooter scenario, we would have handled it differently in the interest of public safety.
We do believe there is a need to talk about mental health and gun issues on campus, and we will do so soon. But there’s a time and a place. Now, while a family is trying to bury their son and the university is mourning the loss of two of its own, is not the time.
It’s a longstanding policy of The Argonaut to minimally cover suicide. We believe suicide is not something to be glorified in the news, and reporting details is not a public service and can be an invasion of privacy.
However, as a college newspaper, it is our duty to serve the University of Idaho campus community. “Journalists should … invite dialogue with the public over journalistic content,” according to the SPJ code of ethics.
Now we are asking you to share your thoughts. If you disagree with The Argonaut’s policy and would have liked us to cover the suicide more, let us know.
We stand by our decision, but will look at revising our policy in the future, if it is truly in the community’s interest.
— BK

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