The words and phrases we use constantly evolve with our understanding of the world. This is particularly true around sensitive topics like race, gender, mental health and disability.
As we become more inclusive, equitable and charitable, we discover that our language can undermine those values. Labels, descriptions and phrases that were once common among some are seen in a new light as hurtful and judgmental. As a result of this enlightened view, old words gradually disappear from the news.
Today we respond to a listener who was surprised to hear the phrase "committed suicide" spoken on NPR's airwaves. Knowing that there is guidance for journalists to avoid this language, the listener wrote in to note that NPR wasn't following it. So we did some research and asked some questions.
Additionally, after seeing NPR rely on a key anonymous source while reporting out the aftermath of the recent military rebellion in Russia, we wanted to know how NPR editors decided to go with the information from the source, given the high stakes of the story.
FROM THE INBOX
Here are a few quotes from the Public Editor's inbox that resonated with us. Letters are edited for length and clarity. You can share your questions and concerns with us through the NPR Contact page.
Following the long-standing guidance for suicide reporting
Micheline Maynard wrote on June 29: While driving on Tuesday evening, I heard a newscast spot on Jeffrey Epstein that used the term "committed suicide." I was surprised that made it on air. ... The mental health community is adamantly opposed to the term "committed suicide" because it blames the deceased for an action that might have taken place under unbearable stress. NPR includes links to suicide prevention hotlines at the end of stories and this wording was at odds with it. I do not know how this made it into a spot but the editor and reporter should be reminded.
More than a decade ago, mental health experts and journalists published these best practices for covering suicide, encouraging reporters to include prevention methods and avoid language that can cause harm or stigmatize. Since then, NPR and other newsrooms have embraced the recommendations.
Yet, it's not unusual for the old language to appear in the news, particularly the phrase "committed suicide," which the guidelines discourage in favor of "died by suicide" or "killed himself" or "took her own life."
For instance, NPR reporter Jaclyn Diaz used the outdated language while covering a Department of Justice report on Jeffrey Epstein, who died by suicide in 2019 in a New York prison while awaiting trial on sex trafficking charges. Listeners heard Diaz on a June 27 newscast say that Epstein "committed suicide in New York's Metropolitan Correctional Center."
Reporting on Epstein's death that same day for All Things Considered, Diaz again used the term "committed suicide." By contrast, while introducing the story, host Ari Shapiro used language reflected in the guidelines: "Disgraced billionaire Jeffrey Epstein killed himself in federal custody in 2019, and this new report sheds light on the events leading up to his death and what went wrong."
There are other recent examples of "committed suicide" being aired on NPR. In a June 27 Fresh Air episode, book critic Maureen Corrigan used the term in a book review. "While at the hospice, Finn learns that Lily, his depressed former girlfriend with whom he's still hopelessly in love, has committed suicide," Corrigan said. Oliver Morrison, a reporter for NPR member station WESA, also used the term during an NPR newscast on July 18 in a story about the trial of Robert Bowers, who killed 11 people in a Pittsburgh synagogue in 2018. Bowers' "father committed suicide when he was a child and Bowers later attempted suicide several times himself," Morrison reported.
NPR and member station journalists looking for direction on this topic have several options.
NPR's current editorial standards say to avoid the term "committed suicide" unless it's in a direct quote, stay away from language like "unsuccessful suicide attempt," and to not mention the suicide method nor the contents of suicide letter if one exists. It also calls for the following sentence to be added to all stories that mention suicide: "If you or someone you know may be considering suicide or is in crisis, call or text 988 to reach the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline."
Editors are a key safety net for standards. While member stations have their own editorial standards, NPR newscast editors should catch the use of stigmatizing language like "committed suicide." Show editors and producers can do the same.
Back in 2015, the then standards and practices editor Mark Memmott issued guidance. It reads: "'Committed suicide' is a sensitive phrase that some believe stigmatizes people. They make the case that you 'commit' a crime or may be 'committed' to an institution, but you do not commit suicide. 'Killed himself' and 'took her life' are among the alternatives."
Elizabeth Jensen, NPR's previous public editor, also wrote in detail about guidelines for reporting that mentions suicide in 2019.
The Associated Press Stylebook guides journalists to "avoid using the phrase committed suicide. Alternate phrases include killed himself, took her own life or died by suicide. The verb commit with suicide can imply a criminal act. Laws against suicide have been repealed in the United States and many other places."
Reporting on Suicide, the website that helped to kick off the movement to reform the news media's framing of suicide, offers journalists recommendations that were created by several international suicide prevention and public health organizations and media organizations, including the Poynter Institute (where members of the public editor team are employed).
"Certain phrases and words can further stigmatize suicide, spread myths, and undermine suicide prevention objectives such as 'committed suicide' or referring to suicide as 'successful,' 'unsuccessful' or a 'failed attempt,'" the recommendations read. "Instead use, 'died by suicide' or 'killed him/herself.'"
NPR managing editor Gerry Holmes said the newsroom has worked to evolve and avoid stigmatizing language.
"Our guidance for the newsroom encourages different language about suicide and you can see and hear the evolution of that language over the last few years," Holmes wrote in an email. "This approach also includes doing stories about suicide prevention, and illustrating the complex drivers of suicide."
As noted, there is plenty of guidance — including NPR's own — recommending that reporters avoid the term "committed suicide" and instead use alternative phrases. There are many examples of NPR stories that follow this advice with journalists using the suggested term "died by suicide," including a July 3 Morning Edition story about suicide rates in the U.S. military and a June 27 digital storyabout a Texas airport worker.
When journalists don't abide by these recommendations, they risk sounding insensitive, particularly to audience members who have embraced the more evolved language. That undermines NPR's credibility. — Emily Barske Wood
We ask NPR one question about how the work comes together.
How does NPR approve the use of an anonymous source?
Top editors at NPR keep the newsroom up to date on "reportables," tidbits of information that the news organization can report so far.
Standards editor Tony Cavin recently approved a single anonymous source for a June reportable on the developing story about the head of Russia's Wagner Group. We asked him about his thought process for approving sources.
Cavin said he approves unnamed sources "on occasion when the person running the newsroom is busy or on those rare instances when I am filling in and running the newsroom myself. The story can be on any topic."
In the case of the Wagner reportable, Cavin said NPR had its own source who confirmed that "U.S. Intelligence was aware beforehand of Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin's plans to launch an attack on the Russian military." NPR was not first on this story, but held off until it had its own sources.
"The source did not want to be named because they were talking about intelligence information that they were not supposed to share with the public," he said. "If they were named they would likely lose their job and have a tough time finding a new one. In a case like this the reporter or editor will often come to me and we will discuss the story, how we got it and who we got it from."
Cavin said the first question to consider is whether the story itself is worth using an anonymous source: "Sometimes it isn't and we don't go with it. If it is, the next question is to figure out whether we can trust the source. If we decide we can, we also discuss how the source wants us to describe her/him."
"Our goal here is to make absolutely sure that what we are reporting is true, especially when we can't provide our audience complete details on how we got it," Cavin said. — Amaris Castillo
The Office of the Public Editor is a team. Editor Kayla Randall, reporters Amaris Castillo and Emily Barske Wood, and copy editor Merrill Perlman make this newsletter possible. Illustrations are by Carlos Carmonamedina. We are still reading all of your messages on Facebook, Twitter and from our inbox. As always, keep them coming.
NPR Public Editor
Chair, Craig Newmark Center for Ethics & Leadership at the Poynter Institute
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