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Saturday, October 3, 2009
Ethics Toolbox

Do suicide threats belong in the blotter

By Nerissa Young

The sudden appearance of Virginia Tech shooter Seung-Hui Cho’s mental health records in July, more than two years after the massacre, brings renewed interest in how the mental health of college students is monitored.

Suicide is a very present and real threat on America’s college campuses. Cho’s suicide got more attention than the average because he took 32 people with him.

The Parthenon, the student newspaper at Marshall University, publishes a weekly blotter. It is more than incident reports; it names names.

Every semester when I do editor orientation, I make my standard objection to running names in the blotter because such action is a libel suit waiting to happen. I encourage editors to run the incident reports without names. Each semester, my recommendation is vetoed. Maybe that’s a good thing because crime records are so difficult to access on college campuses anyway. It’s the “we got it so we’re running it” logic.

Thus, one of my jobs is to libel-proof the blotter. That means working with the reporter to get comprehensive information on each report and to use language that is accurate without including libel.

Struggling with a dilemma on deadline, or just want to talk about a tough call you’ve had to make? Call SPJ’s Ethics Hotline at (317) 927-8000 ext. 208.

I have to admit the blotter provides levity in the newsroom, and it is widely read across campus. The headline “Hot Pockets,” to describe an incident in which a student stole food from the cafeteria and stuffed it into his pants pockets, still makes me laugh.

But the following abbreviated entry put me on red alert during the spring semester:

Both men were transported to the state police barracks where C registered a 0.148 percent on the intoxilyzer. C stated several times that he had nothing to live for and he was going to kill himself after being released. Both men were transported to Western Regional Jail. Staff at both the jail and Marshall University Counseling Services were notified about the threats made by C.

The point of the blotter entry was police arrested two students during a routine traffic stop after officers found a bag of a green leafy substance in the vehicle. The driver, C, failed three field sobriety tests and registered 0.183 in a preliminary breath test, more than twice West Virginia’s legal limit.

To be fair, the editors could not leave out the incident to favor a person who threatened suicide over one who didn’t. Besides, he could have been faking and hoping for leniency in making the threats.

But did we want to take that chance? During the fall semester, a student fell from the top floor of the university parking garage. Just days before the above situation, another student was found dead in his dorm room. Police considered both deaths self-inflicted.

My job is to advise, but I wasn’t sure of the advice I should offer. I suggested the information about the traffic stop should be included but the paragraph about his suicide threats should be omitted.

One effect of the blotter is it often embarrasses those who are mentioned. One student cited for stealing and reselling a textbook wrote a letter to the editor confessing to the crime after the incident was published in The Parthenon.

The SPJ Code of Ethics urges journalists to minimize harm. The fullest responsible disclosure in this situation seemed to be to publish almost everything from an abundance of caution that an entire disclosure could push him over the edge if all was published.

That’s what the editors decided to do.

I wondered what a community newspaper would have done. For years, I beat a drum of full disclosure every time, thinking, “If you don’t want to be in the news, don’t make the news.”

Here I am getting soft at the same time I’m trying to set young journalists on fire to get the details and have the intestinal fortitude to publish them.

But this was a student, 19 years old, on a college campus. One of the responsibilities of journalists is to consider the audience for whom they are writing and the effect on that audience.

I know I’m getting older. I hope I’m not getting softer; I hope I’m getting better.

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