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RURAL SUICIDES HANDLED WITH SENSITIVITY

The Pioneer Central School District faced the tragedy of teen suicide earlier this month. So did the local media.

Two teenage boys from Pioneer High School committed suicide and a third attempted suicide.

But was that news?

"I think they should be covered but you have to be very careful," said Penny Williams, a former television reporter and journalism teacher at St. Bonaventure University.

"You have to carefully consider every word you use in the story. You have to be cognizant that other young people will be reading or seeing the story. You want to minimize the harm such a story might cause."

Covering suicide is such a daunting reporting task for all forms of the media that the Surgeon General's office has released media guidelines. One problem is a phenomenon known as "suicide contagion," meaning other troubled people may read or hear a story about suicide and try to kill themselves.

"Minimizing contagion is only part of the problem and only part of the way the press can help," Dr. Herbert Hendin of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention stated in the Surgeon General's guidelines.

"When kids hear about a suicide, they want to know details - why it happened," added Molly Rich, who heads the organization called "Break the Circle of Stigma."

"The media too often highlights just the bad news," said Rich, who has lectured in Erie County schools about mental illness and helping students cope with life.

"Mental illness can be treated and the media has to make the point that help is out there. That should also be part of the story."

Overall, the Pioneer story was covered by local radio and television in a restrained manner. Graphic details were left out and local media resisted the temptation to exploit the story.

Local police said the town had not seen a suicide in more than two decades - which made the suicides all the more newsworthy.

The Buffalo News ran two stories about the deaths, including a follow-up about the national problem of teen suicide, which is the third leading cause of death for people ages 15 to 24.

"I thought the media generally used discretion in a difficult time for this community," said Michael Medden, a senior administrator for Pioneer schools.

"There was a lot of talk about the stories, and I think the media, generally, allowed people to express different points of view," Medden said. "The media was helpful in getting the message out that we had to pull together as a community.

"Given the circumstances of these tragedies, the media had to perform a role to get information out about what had happened and also to help us as a community respond to it. I felt the media attempted to do that."

Local media, quoting Arcade police, reported that one underlying reason for the Pioneer suicides may have been the death of another student in a traffic accident. Such reporting may have helped demystify the suicides.

However, Hendin, of American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, noted that suicide stories often fail to convey that mental illness is implicated in more than 90 percent of all suicides, and that treatments are available for those illnesses.

"Stories about suicide do not serve the public interest when they treat suicide as an intriguing mystery or inexplicable event, or simplify it to a romantic disappointment, academic problems or frustration at work," Hendin said.

e-mail: aviolanti@buffnews.com

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