NPR “missed the mark at least twice” in reporting on suicide, prompting complaints from listeners, NPR ombudsman Elizabeth Jensen reported.
Specifically, according to Jensen, June 7 and June 8 newscasts reported the method of death for designer Kate Spade and chef and television personality Anthony Bourdain. As Jensen noted, and iMediaEthics has previously reported, best practices and guidelines for reporting on suicide advise news outlets not to discuss the method of death. However, NPR standards editor Mark Memmott told Jensen reporting how someone died is “standards news procedure.” Furthermore, NPR newscasts executive producer Robert Garcia argued it was newsworthy and that NPR was “extremely ‘judicious’ about discussing ‘method.'”
Jensen, however, disagreed. “Those facts may indeed be part of the record, and yes, news organizations generally do report on the causes of death,” she wrote. “But I trust the work of the public health experts here. In neither Spade’s nor Bourdain’s case was the exact method of suicide relevant to understanding the sad stories. NPR does not need to ban its reporters from reporting such details, but I would hope the newsroom would reconsider its policy and make even more judicious calls in the future.”
Despite those two lapses, Jensen complimented NPR’s reporting for avoiding sensationalism and including information about getting help. “The suggestions also recommend that news organizations should avoid: sensationalistic headlines and words such as ‘epidemic,’ pictures of grieving relatives and friends, describing the contents of a suicide note, and describing a suicide as coming ‘without warning,’ Jensen reported. “NPR’s reporting has been consistent there, too.”
iMediaEthics has written to NPR for a response to Jensen’s criticism.
Earlier this month, iMediaEthics looked at media coverage of Kate Spade’s death and best practices for reporting on suicide.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline phone line, which is free and open 24 hours a day, is 1-800-273-8255.