Editorial Board: We’re changing how we report on student deaths

Shideh Ghandeharizadeh | Daily Trojan

There is a beautiful quote by American journalist Ellen Goodman that deeply resonates with our mission at the Daily Trojan, particularly in these last few semesters: “In journalism, there has always been a tension between getting it first and getting it right.”

This is a tension that every newsroom struggles with to varying extents. Reporting accurately and fairly is at the forefront of what we at the Daily Trojan strive toward — but sometimes, it’s important to take a step back. 

Two weeks ago, two student deaths hit our campus. Following the death of junior Ben Duma Sept. 4, there was a divide in our newsroom over how to handle reporting this incident and if we should have reported on it at all.

Ultimately, the Daily Trojan followed its existing suicide reporting protocol — stating the facts and reporting accurately and diligently. Our policy was created just last year after meeting with senior leaders at the Engemann Student Health Center following a suicide in April 2018. While the protocols took steps to minimize harm, they overlooked the mental and emotional effects reporting on suicide can have on any community.

The death of a student the following day affirmed some of our previous thinking — that reporting these stories often causes more harm than good in a community that is grieving. We chose not to report on this death because we understand and have seen that spotlighting suicide in any way can create contagion and trigger community members who may be more vulnerable. 

Last year, the Daily Trojan Editorial Board called for the University to expand on suicide prevention efforts, but this time around, we must look introspectively to do better by remaining sensitive to our readers’ well-being. 

The Daily Trojan Editorial Board recognizes the flaws in our previous policy and have decided to reevaluate how our newspaper reports on suicide. 

In 2018, the American College Health Association found that  41.4% of students felt depressed and 11.3% of students seriously considered suicide. As a publication with students as our core audience, we must remain sensitive to our readers’ wellness.

In accordance with the Associated Press Stylebook’s guidelines, the Daily Trojan will report on suicides or suicide attempts if they involve a well-known person or the circumstances are “publicly disruptive.” We will also limit the number of times we post about these articles on social media while still making sure the community knows where to turn for counseling services,  events that will honor the victims’ lives and crucial information. 

And even though we will minimize reporting on suicides, we won’t let the loss of student lives go unnoticed in our paper. With consent and after an appropriate time period, the Daily Trojan will reach out to family and friends for obituaries, as we are committed to honoring each student’s life, rather than focusing on how they died.

We have taken the time as a newsroom to reflect not only on the story we published Sept. 4 but also on our past reporting. Our readers deserve transparency for why we make the decisions that we do. We understand that providing the public with as much accurate information as possible is a key pillar of journalism, but moving forward our newsroom will put the community’s well-being at the forefront of our news judgment. 

Our wellness initiative instituted this semester will include further, in-depth coverage of mental and emotional health initiatives to both inform the community of the resources available to them and hold our University accountable to further improve its wellness efforts.

Students dealing with mental health concerns can walk into USC Student Health centers or contact the 24/7 phone line (213) 740-9355 for professional assistance. Faculty and staff members can reach out to the Center for Work and Family Life at (213) 821-0800. Students, faculty and staff members concerned about a fellow Trojan can notify Trojans Care 4 Trojans online or by calling (213) 821-4710.