Letter to the Editor: Suicide coverage lacks journalistic integrity

Jonathan Harvey, Contributing Writer

As a student journalist, suicide on campus has been the toughest type of story to cover. It challenges you to see the act through the lens of a story, while the community sees it as heartbreak. 

Student death at Tulane has become normalized in my tenure here. 

In most instances, The Hullabaloo has published articles that briefed the public on the deaths as factually as it could.

I’ve been taught that journalistic guidelines direct us not to sensationalize the tragedy and instead use it as an opportunity to educate the community on mental health resources. 

I do not believe that you, as the Editor-In-Chief of the paper, adhered to those values when reporting Erin Peter’s apparent suicide. 

In your Letter From the Editor that explained why The Hullabaloo reports on suicide the way it does, you explained that you follow a journalistically acclaimed website, reportingonsuicide.org to guide you through the best way to cover suicide. 

That website clearly states that the reporting should inform the audience without sensationalizing the suicide and minimize prominence. 

By attaching the “BREAKING NEWS” graphic to the story, you successfully sensationalized the story, which caused alarm and distress in the community. 

To fix this error, you removed the breaking news graphic and attached a photo of a New Orleans Police Department car, which is captioned, “New Orleans Police Department responded to a phone call concerning reports of a student death at Aron Residences.” 

The website you claim you followed when reporting this news clearly states that you should not include “photos/videos of the location or method of death.” By including that graphic, your coverage did not follow the guidelines that you claim you followed. 

To market a story about suicide as a breaking news scoop is irresponsible.

You also claimed in your letter that “The Hullabaloo follows specific guidelines when reporting deaths in the community,” but it is my understanding that you did not go through the correct editorial channels, and published the story without consent from each staff member key to the editing process. 

I understand that as Editor-in-Chief, you have the power to publish breaking stories without the approval of other staff members. But when you circumvented the editing process to get an article out as soon as you could, without approval from key paper influencers, you have sacrificed journalistic integrity. That is unethical, careless and frankly terrifying. 

The article was published more than three hours before President Mike Fitts alerted the community via email. As a journalist, you have every right to come out with a story before an official public statement. Though, the site you claimed you followed clearly states, “the potential for online reports, photos/videos, and stories to go viral makes it vital that online coverage of suicide follow site or industry safety recommendations.” You did not tread with this caution. 

As of Nov. 1, the article has been viewed over 28,000 times and the letter from the editor has 1,500 page views. That’s roughly half of the newspaper’s total article clicks from the month prior to Nov. 1. 

In the past The Hullabaloo has reported on student deaths before an official announcement had been issued. The editors involved collectively decided that too many people in the community had spread rumors about the incident, and felt that it’s the paper’s duty to squash rumors and inform the community because the president and officials took too long to inform the public. 

The Editor-in-Chief for a news publication that has been around for over 100 years must acknowledge its audience when printing a story of this magnitude with full transparency. 

Your Letter From the Editor came out an entire day after the original report. It prompted reader confusion, not transparency. 

This issue of informing vs. alarming our community has happened before. The current Editor of The Hullabaloo was there for this. The Editor served as news and views editor throughout her tenure at the paper. The mistakes made in promoting this story is not a learning experience, it is inexcusable. 

You can’t expect a community to accept and trust that you followed the guidelines you suggested in your letter when your paper recently published a front page news story about the lack of abortion services available on college university campuses that read like an editorial. None of this has shown journalistic integrity.

This community has suffered many deaths in the last several years, many to suicide, one as early as last February. Suicide has hit this community harder than any issue on Tulane’s campus. For you actively neglect and not listen to your audience brings upon anxiety. 

Your own publication has a mental health column where students share stories of combating and battling a range of health issues, yet you have the audacity to promote a story so recklessly? 

The website instructs you to not investigate and report on suicide as similar to crime, instead report on it as a public health issue. If you actually followed what you claimed, you would not have put a breaking news graphic or photo of a police car outside of the scene. This infers crime. The website instructs that instead, you may attach a school/work or family photo. You did not follow your own guidelines. 

The Tulane community, Erin Peter’s family and friends deserve better than the hypocritical letter that you published. 

Jonathan Harvey is a current senior who previously worked for The Hullabaloo as an editor and digital director. He occasionally consults with the Sports section, but has no other affiliation. 

Disclosure: Harvey obtained page view statistics via The Hullabaloo admin, which he had been granted access to while on The Hullabaloo Staff.