Journalism 101: First, Minimize Harm

I can’t stop thinking about that photo that appeared on the front page of the print edition of last Friday’s Cape Breton Post.

It showed a young man standing outside the guardrail on the Sydney-Whitney Pier overpass, head in hands, under the watchful eye of a Cape Breton Regional Police officer.

Neither the officer nor the young man was named, but certainly the policeman — and I strongly suspect the man himself — could have been identified from the photo in the print edition.

I’m not going to reproduce the photo here nor am I going to link to the online version of the story (although I should note that the photo posted online is a wider angle shot in which the subjects are less identifiable).

Instead, I will just reprint the story here, all 277 words of it:

SYDNEY, N.S. — It was a tense and dramatic scene Friday when a man threatened to jump off a Sydney overpass.

The unidentified man stood precariously on the outer ledge of the Victoria Road overpass for nearly three hours while an officer with Cape Breton Regional Police kept him talking and calm.

The overpass, built in 1963, is one of the connecting routes between Sydney and Whitney Pier.

The situation resulted in police limiting access on a part of the Sydney Port Access Road, which runs under the overpass, along with preventing access to the overpass.

As a result, traffic was snarled along several routes including the Sydney-Glace Bay highway, one of the busiest in the province.

The incident began mid-morning Friday and ended around 3 p.m. Emergency Health Services personnel were also on scene.

A spokesperson for Cape Breton Regional Police said Friday the service would not be commenting on the situation, saying only that it was isolated, contained and resolved. No criminal charges are expected to be filed and no injuries were reported and no weapons were involved.

Police would not comment on whether the man was taken for a mental health assessment, explaining they could not release personal information about the individual.

The man kept talking with an officer throughout his time on the ledge and would occasionally look down to the roadway below.

There were times he was seen burying his face in hands while holding himself upright with his elbows on the overpass railing.

The unidentified man stood precariously on the outer ledge of the Victoria Road overpass for nearly three hours while an officer with Cape Breton Regional Police kept him talking and calm.

The piece is so light on facts even the rather desperate insertion of a few extraneous ones — like, the overpass “was built in 1963” and the Sydney-Glace Bay highway is “one of the busiest in the province” — fails to give it any heft.

 

Heartfelt?

The heft, such as it is, comes in the accompanying Editor’s Note, which clocks in at 347 words:

The photo you see on this story was published after much thought and debate by The Cape Breton Post.

As a responsible newspaper, we try — during and after often-tragic events — to do no more harm.

We also present the truth of what takes place in our community in an honest and heartfelt way.

Media companies have traditionally kept quiet about suicide attempts and the aftermath left by those who succeed.

We strongly question this rationale — not for sensational reasons, but rather for the need for better clarity and conversations about difficult realities.

To be clear, we do not have background or context behind this photo — what the man’s motivation was in standing in public view teetering on an overpass for so long.

While police will not say, on appearance alone it looks to be an heroic and compassionate outreach by officers, as well as a young man who was convinced to reconsider whatever course of action he was contemplating.

Perhaps it was something other than what appeared to the many witnesses who watched it unfold from below.

At the point of writing this, no one will explain clearly what the image depicts.

But we believe it may be important, especially to how we clearly speak about suicide prevention, treatment and available resources.

We hope whatever issues or struggles this person faced, he is around those who love him, as well as professionals who can help him.

Again, his story is unknown.

But frankly, too much of the issue of what onlookers assumed they were watching unfold on Friday is also constantly reinforced by silence and blindness.

Whether the picture was or was not what it seemed, we are now looking to our neighbours to continue a debate — that includes criticism or understanding of our decision, as well as honest talk about one of the most important topics we could ever present.

If you or someone you know needs immediate help call the Nova Scotia Mental Health Crisis Line at 1-888-429-8167 or Kids Help Phone at 1-800-668-6868.

How can you at once claim to “present the truth of what takes place in our community in an honest and heartfelt way” while also admitting (repeatedly) that you do not know the truth of what is taking place in this photo?

 

Debatable

Give the Post editor his due: he opened the newsroom floor to debate. (And those people who argued against running the photo? You should probably listen to them next time). He also had the sense to realize an explanation would be necessary in addition to the photo. And he did add the crisis line phone numbers at the end of the story, in keeping with the generally accepted standards for reporting on actual suicides.

But does that make it okay to print the story?

I think you can guess my answer to that question but my beefs with the Post — particularly in its current incarnation as part of Mark Lever and Sarah Dennis’ Saltwire Network — are legion. So I decided to ask the opinion of someone less biased in terms of the newspaper involved and more informed in terms of the ethical issues in play.

 

Compassion

I emailed media ethicist Stephen J. A. Ward, a former war correspondent and Canadian Press bureau chief who now writes and lectures on journalism ethics. I sent Professor Ward (who is based in Fredericton, NB) a link to the online version of the Post story and a picture of the front page of the print edition and asked him about the ethical implications of the story and photo. He replied:

Decisions on coverage of suicide can be difficult and it is possible for two editors to have reasons behind their differing coverage decisions.

Historically, journalism ethics has favored that suicides be not covered at all, or not in an explicit manner, unless there are special and extenuating reasons, e.g. the person kills themselves after attacking innocent citizens, or the person is publicly well known, e.g. the prime minister takes his or her life, or if the suicide is part of a string of suicides in a small community. Normally, newsrooms limit coverage if the person is an ordinary citizen who unfortunately has come to a breaking point. The journalistic principle of minimizing harm urges journalists to not create further pain for the family of the person, or to cause harm by identifying the person in the community—whether…the suicide attempt was carried out or not.

These practical guidelines, of course, are never absolute and “grey areas” can arise.   However, in this case, I do not think there are extenuating reasons sufficiently serious to warrant using this photo and accompanying story. If this was part of a string of suicides, as noted above, yes….perhaps. But it isn’t. Moreover, reporting this attempt provides us with no further important knowledge or information that the public should know, e.g., some insight into the causes of suicide or mental illness. We simply do not know why the attempt happened. And the coverage does not tell us.

I also believe that in this community, the picture will have negative consequences for the man and his family and so on. I come from a small city so I know how people are easily identified by others.

So I cannot see any justifying public interest in not following the normal rules of minimizing harm and compassion, and publishing this picture.

I wrote Ward back to say that we had experienced a number of suicides by young people earlier this year and that the families in each case had chosen to go public. He thanked me for the clarification but said:

Yet, even so, this particular story does not link the photo to this problem that you point out.

 

Privacy vs Confidentiality

Being me, I can’t help but compare the Post’s willingness to print a photo of a private citizen in a painful (albeit, public) moment to its willingness to respect the privacy of, say, port marketers, who can’t tell us what they’re doing to promote our own harbor for reasons of “confidentiality.” (That’s privacy when it puts on a suit and goes to the office).

Surely there are better targets for this drive to “present the truth of what happens in our community.”

 

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