Suicide Prevention Advocates Have Beef with New Times

Last week, New Times published an article titled "Legends of the Fall," which told the story of people who have leapt to their deaths from Miami-Dade high-rises. We found some disturbing stuff. Since the condo boom of 2007, at least 16 people have thrown themselves from the gleaming, private condo towers. And not one of the very public deaths had been reported in the news. More suicides happen in this country than homicides, but the media won't touch the subject.

Which makes some sense. It's hard to think of a tougher, more sensitive subject to report. Before writing it, we talked to advocates at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. We wanted to make sure we reported it responsibly. So we listened to their advice. Some of it was smart. But we also disagreed with some of it.

After the story ran, AFSP public relations manager Wylie G. Tene was livid. In an email, he wrote, "I couldn't even finish the first page of your article. It is disgusting... Unbelievable."

He followed up with a letter to the editor that we'd like to share with readers. (Click on the above image.) We're curious what you think about the way we wrote the feature. Considering the sensitive issue, should we have written it at all? Should we have left out upsetting details? Should we have made it -- as the AFSP folks seemed to push for -- a public service announcement instead of a piece about real people?

OK, that last question was loaded.

Here are a few examples. We agreed with AFSP on these points:

1. Reporters should be careful not to romanticize the act.
2. To avoid copycats, reporters shouldn't print exact addresses.
3. Reporters shouldn't oversimplify what caused the suicide.

(See what we disagreed with after the jump.)

And here's the stuff we thought was unreasonable:

1. Don't describe the deaths in too much detail. (Sorry, guys. Suicide is messy.)
2. By reporting jumps, media is partly responsible for events such as the Golden Gate Bridge deaths. (Baloney.)
3. It's better to write in general terms about mental illness than to give intimate portraits of the people who died. (Snore.)

On its media site, AFSP offered a list of examples of "problematic coverage." The so-called irresponsible articles included great pieces from the New York Times Magazine, Boston Globe, and the Washington Post. It's tough to see how these pieces could be anything but enlightening.

To us, it seemed like AFSP was encouraging New Times to dumb down these tragedies.

But you already know what we think.

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Natalie O'Neill
Contact: Natalie O'Neill