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What Happens When Journalists Cover Someone Who Later Commits Suicide?

A recent case has brought this most difficult of journalistic issues to the fore.
 
 
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This week, a Florida woman,  Gretchen Molannen, who had fully cooperated with a newspaper story about her debilitating "sexual arousal disorder" took her own life soon after the story appeared in print.

The story described several unsuccessful self-harm attempt's in its subject's past:

Gretchen has been prescribed antidepressants and Ambien, a sleeping aid, which she has at times paid for with Medicaid but most often with private donations. But her lack of medical insurance makes treatment for the condition that has destroyed her life financially impossible.

One day last March, Gretchen duct-taped the pool hose to the muffler of her car. She turned on the ignition and sat there while a Three's Company episode played on her DVD player. The carbon monoxide gave her a pounding headache. She spilled out of the car.

Three weeks later, she put on a bathing suit and went in the bathroom and sliced open her wrist.

"I don't really want to do it," she said recently. "But it helps me calm down. It helps me to think about the possibilities to stop the suffering."

According to the staff at the Tampa Bay Times, they had no indication that such a drastic measure would result.  In fact, Molannen was grateful for their help telling her story. From Poytner:

Leonora LaPeter Anton listened to Molannen tell her story for three and half hours during their first interview, Wilson said. Molannen called later and advised Anton that a friend had advised her to withdraw her consent. But Molannen did just the opposite. She told Anton she wanted to see the story published.

In reply, Anton stressed to Molannen that it really was her choice, Wilson said. More than a month passed and the two had no contact. As the publication date for the story approached, Anton reconnected with Molannen, Wilson said, and took the unusual step of reading her the story word-for-word. The reporter wanted her source to know exactly what the story would say.

Another writer at Poytner, Dan Stockman, describes his own process with a source who committed suicide after the reporter exposed his shady financial dealings:

In short, the target of my investigation – the man I had publicly shamed – had killed himself.

Now what?

I’m used to the people I investigate hating my guts. I’m somewhat used to them screaming at me. I’m used to their attempts to pressure me.

But when the subjects take their lives, it's easy for the public to blame journalists--and maybe journalists to blame themselves. Stockman has a serious ethical process he goes through in his investigations, but he's also learned to recognize that "anyone who commits suicide is, by some definition, mentally ill and it is the fool who tries to apply logic to any decision made by that person. You simply cannot say that this action was the result of this orthat, whatever the circumstances may be." Still, he tries to bend over backward to "be fair" to sources he's investigating.

That's likely not the case with Nancy Grace, who came under fire last year when a woman facing negligent manslaughter charges for the death of her child, a woman whom Grace had publicly chastised on her show as "vodka mom," killed herself by self-immolation, apparently after watching the show in which Grace described her alleged crime in great detail.

 

Sarah Seltzer is a freelance writer based in New York City. Her work has been published at the Nation, the Christian Science Monitor, Jezebel and the Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter at @sarahmseltzer and find her work at sarahmseltzer.com.

 
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