Our policies on reporting suicides and rumors

For the benefit of readers who don’t use our Internet offerings, I will expound and expand upon a blog I posted Monday. Please bear with me as I explain a couple of our newsroom policies.

One concerns our rules regarding reporting of suicides.

First, I’ll note I cannot fathom why a person would decide (especially in the days before a major holiday) to take his or her own life. While I can sympathize – even empathize – with someone who feels overwhelmed by personal events and circumstances, I can’t comprehend taking a permanent act in the face of temporary problems. My inability to grasp that not only reflects the many blessings in my life but likely is a blessing in itself.

It’s often assumed a person takes this final act in order to end suffering. Sometimes, it seems, the person wants to inflict suffering on others, or else is oblivious to the pain their loss will cause. Infrequently, a person seeks to inflict suffering on himself or herself.

Sunday, a person chose to end his life at a residence in Tiffin. He did so in private.

A report on the city of Tiffin’s Twitter page concerning a body being found at this home prompted other news media outlets to relay that information. Some of our staffers have been asked why we did not. That is because the reporter covering spot news Sunday already had discerned what had happened.

This was an instance when The Advertiser-Tribune’s policy concerning suicides came to bear. In general, we do not report when someone commits suicide in private, away from public view. While the act remains a tragedy, it is not illegal to take one’s own life.

We will report when someone takes his or her own life when the act occurs in public or in a manner which makes the incident a matter of public safety. That’s because the public’s right, or need, for an explanation becomes an overriding factor.

For example, years ago, a resident of a nearby village took his own life outside, along a state route, despite efforts of law enforcement personnel to dissuade him.

More recently, a man killed himself at a state nature preserve using a technique that easily could have injured or killed someone else.

While this policy concerning reporting of suicides may seem clear, situations can arise that cloud the issue. For example, we recently reported a death that had the appearance of a homicide, but later was ruled to be suicide.

Despite the immediacy of Internet-based communication, and the speed with which information can be disseminated by anyone with a cellphone, tablet or laptop, we intend to retain this policy, while wishing we never had to have formulated it to begin with, let alone never apply it again.

That brings us to the other policy I wish to discuss – reporting of rumors and the use of anonymous sources.

Our biggest competitor in the news business is, not surprisingly, word of mouth. Gossip, word on the street, the rumor mill – whatever you call it, it’s how news has travelled for millenia. And Internet- and cellular-based methods of sharing information really aren’t New Media so much as digital delivery systems, dispatching messages at faster rates over greater distances.

That makes it frustrating for reporters and editors. Chances are, if we’ve heard that, say, Widget World has plans to open a franchise in Tiffin, others in the community have heard it, too. But we can’t just attribute that tidbit to a nameless source.

We can use the information to chase details from folks who can speak on the record. Trouble is, businesspeople tend to hold their cards close to the vest. Store walls can be erected with a sign post going up out front, yet a developer still won’t admit what obviously is transpiring.

Then, three weeks after the shop opens, the manager will want a story and photo at the grand opening.