Suicide by news subjects shouldn’t be pinned on media, experts say

Representative Dan Johnson at a church press conference on December 12, 2017. Photo: J. Tyler Franklin/KyCIR

The investigative profile of preacher-turned-politician Dan Johnson was devastating.

Johnson called himself the Pope, and in a five-day series called The Pope’s Long Con based on a seven-month investigation and more than 100 interviews, the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting described how Johnson, a recently elected Republican state lawmaker, had lied about his background, burned his car—and possibly his church—for insurance money, and allegedly molested a 17-year-old girl during a sleepover.

Read more: ‘Any journalist’s nightmare’: The Pope’s Long Con unraveled a web of lies, with tragic consequences

After three installments were broadcast on an affiliated public radio station, WFPL, Johnson drove to a bridge south of Louisville and shot himself. In a suicide note posted on Facebook, Johnson denied the allegations. His widow blamed the media for his death. And one listener who commented on the station’s website called KyCIR “evil” and attributed the death to its “unwarranted and sustained political attack.”

But most readers and listeners who commented defended the report, noting it was meticulously documented and sourced. And experts on suicide and journalistic ethics say that suicide is so rare, so unpredictable, and so often caused by multiple factors that it cannot—and should not—be blamed on news coverage.

“Suicide is never caused by one thing,” said Julie Cerel, president of the American Association of Suicidology. A licensed clinical psychologist and professor in University of Kentucky’s College of Social Work, Cerel said “many people are accused of misconduct but don’t take their own lives,” just as “a lot of kids are bullied but very few die of suicide.”

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Samuel Freedman, a religion columnist at The New York Times and a professor at Columbia University’s School of Journalism, said reporters and editors should weigh the potential harm of stories on subjects but that is not “an argument for self-censoring.” The media must consider the public harm of not publishing, he said, such as allowing “an alleged sexual predator” to “keep trusted positions in a church or state government.”

Kathleen Culver, director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at University of Wisconsin, noted that KyCIR tried to reach out to the subject to allow him to speak for himself.

The death of news subjects by suicide is not common, but it is hardly unprecedented.

The most famous instance came in 1965, after editors at The New York Times received a tip that the state grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan, a former top officer in the American Nazi Party, not only was Jewish but had been raised in an Orthodox home and bar mitzvahed. The Times sent a reporter to confront Dan Burros about his bizarre background and he vowed to kill the reporter, and possibly himself, if it disclosed his secret.

“I’ll be ruined,” he said. “This is all I’ve got to live for.”

Under the headline, “State Klan Leader Hides Secret of Jewish Origin,” the Times published the story, one of the most famous in its history, on the front page on October 31, 1965. Later the same day, Burros fatally shot himself in the head and chest.

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The newspaper received angry letters questioning the wisdom of invading Burros’s privacy and exposing an obviously sick person. Even some staff members in the newsroom felt the paper may have gone too far, given that Burros was merely an oddball rather than a major public figure, Gay Talese wrote in his history of the Times, The Kingdom and the Power.

It’s sad when someone commits suicide, but the job of journalists is to try to ascertain the truth of the situation and not primarily engage in considering the consequences before we write.

But others said the story, which later inspired a book by Times editors Arthur Gelb and A.M. Rosenthal, One More Victim, as well as a movie, The Believer, starring Ryan Gosling, performed a public service in focusing attention on a fanatic with the potential for causing public harm.

Experts say it is impossible for journalists to predict the consequences of their work. “We can’t see around corners,” said Edward Wasserman, dean of the California-Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Still, Wasserman, a former editor at the Miami Herald and the Casper, Wyoming Star-Tribune, said some discoveries don’t rise to the level of public significance and are “merely interesting or titillating,” making it “callous and cruel” to publish them.

For example, in 2006 before a “sweeps week,” KDKA-TV in Pittsburgh aired a series of promotions for a report on a local minister suggesting he was involved in improper behavior; the promos showed a reporter confronting the pastor about his visits to an adult bookstore. He went to a motel and killed himself. Angry viewers accused the station of “assassinating” the preacher, according to an editorial column in the Post-Gazette, which said TV stations ought to take “a contemplative look at the impact salacious, fear-mongering sweeps-month promos and reports can have.” The station’s general manager issued a statement expressing condolences; he said the station never aired the story because it had received advance word from somebody close to the minister that he was considering harming himself.

In 1998, the owner of a martial arts studio in Charlottesville, Virginia, killed himself after a local news outlet, C-Ville Weekly, reported that a two-way mirror had been installed in the women’s room there. A reporter had contacted the owner, who said he hadn’t known the mirror could be viewed from the other side, and that planned to alert authorities. Instead, he drove to a wooded park and stabbed himself to death. In a suicide note, he denied wrongdoing. While some of his former students angrily questioned whether they had been spied on, others said the owner had been treated unjustly by the media and that the pressure drove him to take his own life.

Author Orville Schell, who preceded Wasserman as Berkeley’ dean, told The Washington Post at the time that the reporter acted responsibly. “It’s sad when someone commits suicide, but the job of journalists is to try to ascertain the truth of the situation and not primarily engage in considering the consequences before we write,” he said. “That really is the job of policymakers and managers.”

Two years earlier, the Navy’s highest-ranking officer, Admiral Jeremy M. Boorda, committed suicide shortly after he was told of an impending magazine article suggesting that he wore two Vietnam War combat decorations that he had not earned. Newsweek had requested an interview earlier in the day. Defense Department and Navy colleagues said that while the magazine article may have pushed the admiral over the edge, he had been under great stress at the Navy, which has been overwhelmed with a cheating scandal at the Naval Academy and the sexual assault of dozens of women at a convention of naval aviators.

Other stories have ended in tragedy, despite precautions taken by news organizations.

In 2012, before the Tampa Bay Times published a story about a 39-year-old woman who suffered from a rare, debilitating condition called “persistent genital arousal disorder,” editors allowed the reporter call her in advance and read her the story word for word because it was so sensitive. In an email before it ran, Gretchen Molannen thanked the reporter for doing the piece. “I am flattered that you cared so much to want to help,” she said. “I just hope this will educate people that this is serious and really exists, and that other women who are suffering in silence will now have the courage to talk to a doctor about it.” But the day after publication, she committed suicide. One angry reader wrote that the Times had “blood on its hands,” while another said the story did not belong in a mainstream newspaper.”

Molannen, though, had told the reporter that her condition was so debilitating that she had attempted suicide at least three times during the year before the story ran. Then-Managing Editor Mike Wilson issued a statement that said, “We can’t know all of the complex factors that led Gretchen to the awful choice she made. But we hope and believe that her story will help other men and women who quietly suffer from similar conditions.”

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Andrew Wolfson Andrew Wolfson is a reporter on the Courier Journal’s project team, where he previously covered legal issues and other topics. Wolfson has won a George Polk Award for national reporting and an American Bar Association Silver Gavel, and he was a member of a reporting team awarded a Pulitzer Prize.