One morning last week, a woman walked into a busy Target department store in Burke and shot herself to death near the books section. The Washington Post did not report the death, and a number of you have asked why. In the comments section, I’ll be interested to hear whether you agree with the editors’ decision.
In general, the mainstream media have informally agreed not to report on suicides. There are several reasons for this. One, there are a lot of suicides. Way more than you’d think. In Fairfax County in 2010, there were 14 homicides but 86 suicides. Covering them all would be difficult.
Two, the media do not want to encourage suicide. We do not want people to think they can go out in a blaze of glory by killing themselves. There has been extensive research that shows that media coverage of suicides may be linked to an increase in suicides, particularly among teens and in “copycat” cases.
Three, the killer does not remain to face charges or answer questions, as in homicides, and there is no subsequent push for justice or accountability. The motivations are complicated, if they are ever known. Mental health or messy domestic situations cloud the picture.
There are exceptions, of course. Suicides by prominent people are covered. Suicides in public places — jumping off a bridge at rush hour, leaping from a downtown skyscraper — are sometimes covered.
So that brings us to the suicide inside the Target store, at the intersection of Roberts and New Guinea roads. Fairfax County police said it happened about 11:30 a.m. Officer Don Gotthardt said investigators do not believe it happened in view of anyone. The store was closed for most of the day, and reopened that night with the immediate area of the suicide curtained off.
The police did not issue a press release, but word of the shooting spread. The Post’s Justin Jouvenal called the Fairfax police public information office and obtained the information available at the time, while the woman was still alive and police were just starting to investigate. A blog item was posted. But when the woman subsequently died, and police confirmed it was a suicide, The Post chose not to report any further.
The Washington Examiner did a short report on the episode, as did Patch.com, which followed up with a story about suicide prevention. The Post’s deputy local editor, Mike Semel, said “The incident at the Target store was tragic. While the Target is a public place, the suicide occurred outside anyone’s view. Therefore we determined that it did not meet any of our criteria for reporting on suicides. In addition, we did not think reporting the event would have provided any value to our readers.”
If you were the editor, what would be your call?