United States Project

A controversial ballot measure has Colorado news outlets grappling with the "S" word

August 23, 2016

On Election Day, voters in Colorado will have a big decision to make: whether to approve an initiative that would allow terminally ill patients to obtain a prescription for drugs to end their lives.

But before then, news outlets in the state have a decision of their own to make: what language to use when describing the proposal. Like abortion, immigration, or even the estate tax before it, the movement for what is sometimes called “death with dignity” has sparked a debate over political terminology. Newsrooms around the state are discussing the issue right now–but so far, there is little consensus.

The crux of the argument is whether to use the “S” word–“suicide.” Opponents of the Colorado initiative have paid for billboards along the state’s highways that read, “Assisted suicide: You can’t live with it.” The phrase has also often been used in national coverage that’s sympathetic to the movement, sometimes interchangeably with alternatives. But in Colorado, supporters of the measure pointedly use other terms. The statute that would be enacted if voters approve the initiative is called the “End-of-Life Options Act,” and it refers more than 50 times to “medical aid-in-dying.” Like similar laws in a handful of other states, the measure even declares, “Actions taken in accordance with this article do not, for any purpose, constitute suicide [or] assisted suicide…”

One local news outlet, Denver TV station KUSA 9News, waded into the debate last week, and in the process prompted conversations in newsrooms around the state. Despite requests from advocates, the station has decided to refer to the measure as an “assisted suicide law,” wrote Brandon Rittiman, the station’s political reporter. His explanation:

Supporters of the measure argue the word “suicide” is too friendly to the opposition because it may make you think of someone who ends their life for no good reason.

In contrast, the proposed law does require a reason: you’d need to be diagnosed with a terminal illness to get a life-ending prescription.

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But in plain English, that’s still “suicide.”

In making its word choice, KUSA isn’t taking a position on the policy, Rittiman wrote–just sticking with the dictionary definition. “[I]t’s not our job in the news business to change the dictionary,” he wrote. “It’s our job to use plain language that’s current and accurate.”

That’s an approach that frustrates advocates like Holly Armstrong of the group Yes on Colorado End-of-Life Options. Under the proposal, a patient could obtain a prescription for self-administered medication to end his or her life when two doctors have confirmed a prognosis of death by terminal illness within six months, when the patient has made multiple requests at least 15 days apart, and when the patient has received information about treatment alternatives, among other guidelines.

People in that position want to live, advocates say, and to describe them as suicidal is hurtful. When a person uses prescribed drugs to end his or her life, says Armstrong, the death certificate “does not say the cause is ‘suicide.’ It says the cause is the underlying, terminal illness.”

That argument appears to have prevailed, for the most part, at The Denver Post. The Post has published both “aid-in-dying” and (in an AP story and headline out of California) “assisted suicide” over the past two weeks. But in the future, editor Lee Ann Colacioppo told her staff Monday, when a short phrase is needed, they should “use the words in the actual measure: ‘Aid-in-dying.’

“Assisted suicide” isn’t strictly banned from the Post, Colacioppo wrote in her staff memo, and those words are accurate based on the dictionary. “But we know words carry meaning beyond what the dictionary says…. In this case, I am convinced that there is, fairly or not, so much stigma attached to the word ‘suicide’ that it has taken on a pejorative meaning.”

A phrase that should be avoided except in quotes, Colacioppo added, is “right to die”–which, like “death with dignity,” is “associated with advocacy groups.”

On that front, the Post differs with The Coloradoan in Fort Collins, which has regularly used “right to die,” including in the headline and body of a story earlier this month. The paper, whose coverage area is home to a state lawmaker who has sponsored similar proposals in the past, has also referred to “aid in dying.” Editor Lauren Gustus told me that to her knowledge, the paper has avoided using “assisted suicide.” (She even wrote a column Monday about how The Coloradoan’s decision differs from 9News, which is the paper’s news partner.)

One point where the Post and Coloradoan agree: When space allows, simply describe what the proposal would allow. “We’ve got the space in story text to use the precise description,” Gustus says. “That’s what we’ve chosen to do for the last two years. We’ll continue to do so throughout this election cycle.”

The Associated Press Stylebook, which steers writers away from “death with dignity,” offers similar guidance, to a point. “When referring to legislation whose name includes death with dignity or similar terms, just say the law allows the terminally ill to end their own lives unless the name itself of the legislation is at issue,” it reads.

When shorthand is needed, though, the AP is more accepting of “medically assisted suicide.” Joe Danborn, the region’s news editor for the wire service, says readers from California to Washington state have written to the “Ask the Editor” section of the online version of the Stylebook—you need an account to log in—with queries about AP usage.

“Colorado’s ballot measure would seem to fit the definition of medically assisted suicide, in that it would allow the terminally ill to receive prescriptions for drugs meant to end their lives,” Danborn told me. “We’ll likely avoid ‘physician-assisted suicide,’ which has a different connotation.”

Other outlets in Colorado, meanwhile, are still hashing out their policy. Journalists at Colorado Public Radio are discussing the issue, “but we haven’t settled on the right language,” says news director Sadie Babits. A brief CPR story from last week uses “aid in dying” in the URL and headline, has an “assisted suicide” tag, and refers to “medical assistance in dying” in the text.

And at The Gazette in Colorado Springs, editor Vince Bzdek says the paper is assigning a small task force to make a recommendation. The group will field opinions on whether “assisted suicide” and “right to die” are acceptable or amount to too much editorializing, Bzdek says. “We will also consider doctor-assisted death and doctor-assisted dying in our discussion.”

As for Rittiman back at KUSA, he followed up his online item with a broadcast segment Friday afternoon. He told me it took multiple days to work out as the station spoke with supporters of the measure who wanted them to drop the word “suicide.”

He wasn’t persuaded. The dictionary definitions, he says, are consistently agnostic about the motive for ending one’s own life. Circumstances don’t matter.

He’ll probably continue to face criticism from supporters of the measure, but he’s glad he put his explanation out there. “We want to be transparent about editorial decisions,” Rittiman says. “And this one brings out passion.”

Photo by: Alex Proimos, via Wikimedia Commons

Corey Hutchins is CJR’s correspondent based in Colorado, where he teaches journalism at Colorado College. A former alt-weekly reporter in South Carolina, he was twice named journalist of the year in the weekly division by the SC Press Association. Hutchins writes about politics and media for the Colorado Independent and worked on the State Integrity Investigation at the Center for Public Integrity; he has contributed to Slate, The Nation, the Washington Post, and others. Follow him on Twitter @coreyhutchins or email him at coreyhutchins@gmail.com.