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The Daily Tar Heel

Coverage of Sensitive Issues Like Deaths and Suicides Complex

Every school year, some small number of students at the University die, whether by suicide, drug overdose, illness or car accident.

No matter what the cause of death, The Daily Tar Heel always faces the difficult dilemma of whether and how to report it.

This semester, DTH Editor Katie Hunter said, there have been two such deaths: one caused by an early morning accident on Interstate 40 and the other a drug overdose in September.

In both instances, the DTH covered the stories, but the decisions were not easy, and the results did not please everyone.

In the first case, two students were driving on I-40 on the morning of Nov. 14 when the driver fell asleep.

The passenger, 21-year-old Sarah Laney, was thrown from the vehicle and died.

The DTH ran a story two days later, not on the front page, but on page three. Hunter said the sensitive nature of the story was part of the reason for the placement.

On Sept. 10, the DTH reported on its front page that 20-year-old senior Daniel Walker had been found dead at his Carrboro home three days earlier.

Carrboro Police Capt. Joel Booker warned the community that "tainted drugs" might have contributed to his death. The next month, the DTH ran the toxicology results: Walker had in fact died of a multiple-drug overdose.

Friends of the student were incensed that the university newspaper tarnished their friend's memory by publishing the cause of death, and they told the newspaper so by phone and e-mail. Other readers less close to the situation complained that DTH coverage was "too newsy," Hunter said.

Hunter herself acknowledged that the paper might have done better to report more broadly on the issue of drug use on campus.

Both of these incidents point to the complexities of covering student deaths. In the first instance, the DTH might have been overly sensitive by not running the story on the front page.

In the second instance, the DTH would have been wise to complement the "hard news" coverage with information for all students about the dangers of drugs.

Currently, the DTH is dealing with a similar topic: its reporting of suicides.

In recent years the DTH's guiding principle has been that suicides are news only if they're done publicly.

The thinking presumably goes that public suicides are in the public realm, and the newspaper therefore has an obligation to report on them for the community's benefit.

Of course, drawing a line between what's public and what's private is not always easy, especially at a public university.

So now the DTH is trying to clarify its "suicide policy."

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Not only will the staff seek to define the concepts of public and private, it will also attempt to formulate a general approach to covering suicides.

These are difficult issues, but fortunately ones that are not unique to the DTH.

Every newspaper, and for that matter, every radio and television station, faces them.

For this reason, the staff is turning to a variety of resources inside and outside the DTH for guidance.

Here's some of what they've found: The DTH has not always avoided covering private suicides.

In October 1996, the DTH reported that a third-year graduate student "took her life in her apartment at 743 E. Franklin St."

The story was brief, but it included the woman's name and the fact that her boyfriend found her dead in her apartment.

In August, Chicago Tribune columnist Don Wycliff wrote that "the taboo against public discussion and reporting of suicide has largely been dispelled in recent years. Not incidentally, this has happened at the same time the taboo against public discussion of mental illness has disappeared."

Today, most experts say that suicides should be reported properly if they are to be reported at all. The U.S. surgeon general in his National Strategy for Suicide Prevention offers journalists these recommendations:

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