Features

He who hesitates is saved

"He who hesitates is saved" Continued...

Issue: "Northern light," Sept. 20, 2008

Today, with greater concern for the invasion of privacy and awareness of potential lawsuits, few newspapers print causes of death. Almost all omit gory details. But a more fundamental change has occurred also: When secular publications cover suicide, those who do it receive a form of honor. I still have in my files a story concerning the 1983 suicide of Kent Green, age 16. The Louisville Courier-Journal's Sunday magazine put his smiling picture on its front cover, with the caption, "Star athlete, solid student, popular leader. . . ."

The story inside quoted Green's suicide note-"I just didn't have a future"-and noted simply that "one night he put a rifle to his head and pulled the trigger." The writer, instead of showing brains and blood all over the floor, emphasized how much his parents, friends, and teachers admired him. The story's final sentence showed how Kent Green's mother "still keeps the door to Kent's room closed, and for the most part she stays out. But sometimes, when she's home during the day, she will open the door and just look in."

The romanticized story had a tragic aftermath. Terry Ray Cahill, a friend and classmate of Green, read the article five times, said "it wouldn't be a bad way to die," and shot himself fatally in the head, just as Kent Green had. The local school superintendent noted the next day, "I'm very concerned about the fact-whether it's irony or whatever-that this kind of tragedy falls right on the footsteps of this Courier-Journal article."

No one can reasonably state that the Courier-Journal printing of the article caused the Cahill suicide. But I remember this story because the editor later told me that he repented of printing the romanticized account. He said he had spent "a long time" discussing with staff members whether to print the story and what to include in it, only to follow the regular contemporary format: bloodlessness and sympathy.

Is typical coverage helpful? If bridge barriers and other slow-down devices can cut the number of suicides, would accurate and honest media coverage help as well? Fyodor Dostoevsky had his character Kirilov explain that people who might otherwise commit suicide do not kill themselves for two reasons: fear of pain, and fear of the next world. What happens if newspapers do not report pain and do not discuss the religious questions involved in suicide? Might journalistic compassion for those contemplating suicide actually require tough coverage of those who have?

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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