Last winter, a group of Oregon journalists gathered to talk about how newsrooms could improve how they report on suicide. During the discussion, an audacious plan emerged.
What if we set aside our long-held competitive instincts and worked in tandem to attack the problem? What if we cooperated in a way that had never been done before? What if we shared best practices and our articles and photos?
Against the odds, we pulled it off. In April, just a few months after the idea formed, more than 30 newsrooms across Oregon took part in a week of reporting on suicide awareness and prevention. And on Sept. 8, we revisit the effort with a front-page story on the issue of teen mental health. It’s the first story in a four-part series that will publish this week. Other newsrooms are also covering the issue again starting Sunday, which kicks off National Suicide Prevention Week.
The collaborative effort, led by The Oregonian/OregonLive, Oregon Public Broadcasting, Pamplin Media Group and KGW-TV, has attracted national attention because it had never been done anywhere before.
More than 30 newsrooms from KOBI television in Medford to the Blue Mountain Eagle to Jefferson Public Radio took part, producing television, radio and newspaper segments. Publications from Street Roots to the Portland Business Journal found fresh angles to explore, such as the connection between evictions and suicide and the high rates of suicide among construction workers. You can view all the coverage at breakingthesilenceor.com.
Suicide is an epidemic in Oregon. More than 470 people have died by suicide as of Aug. 1. We have one of the highest rates in the country and have for decades. But it has also largely been a silent killer. News organizations don’t typically cover individual suicides unless the person is prominent or the death highly public.
When you compare that to news coverage of, say, this year’s measles outbreak, in which no one died, it doesn’t make much sense.
The central idea behind this year’s collaboration — called Breaking the Silence — was that our lack of coverage was not helping and, in fact, likely was hurting. Based on news coverage alone, readers and viewers would have no idea more than 800 Oregonians kill themselves each year. And they would have no idea that there are effective ways to prevent suicides.
As we embark on the second round of media attention to the issue, we don’t know if our coverage has made a difference. We may never know. But we do know that we have sparked an important conversation, set aside some of the stigma and shined a light where it was needed.
Dwight Holton, chief executive officer of Lines for Life, a crisis line in Portland, inspired the reporting effort when he gathered journalists last winter to discuss Oregon’s suicide problem. The result surpassed his expectations, and now he hopes to replicate the joint reporting effort on a national scale.
“Oregon journalists are reporting important and powerful stories,” he said, “and setting the standard nationwide in having an important conversation about America’s suicide crisis.”