An ethical dilemma when the cause of death is suicide

[ 2:11 p.m. This post has been updated]

The Fargo Forum is getting some pushback from its community after it reported the results of an autopsy of the popular owner of a West Fargo diner.

Tim Hagensen died in April; his body was discovered hours after he was reported missing.

His wife told the Forum afterward that she’d have to close the TNT Diner. The diner, closed now, has been bought and will reopen under a new name.

There were a number of code phrases at the time that hinted at the cause of death, but the Forum didn’t say for sure until an autopsy report was released last week. Hagensen took his own life.

The story presents an ethical question for news editors: Who owns someone’s cause of death?

Some readers say it belongs to the family.

Why in the name of journalism would you write and print an article for the sake of selling more newspapers that would destroy all the healing of a grieving family? The Hagensen family has been through enough sorrow without you dredging up the past and adding to their pain. Shame on you.

Thanks to people like Dean and Della Johnson for showing compassion and resurrecting the restaurant that means a lot to the community, the employees, the countless customers and holds many fond memories for the family.

Give the family the respect that they deserve and let them heal. — Sharon Schreiner, West Fargo

The loss of a loved one to suicide is different than other types of loss. It may take a loved one months, years or an eternity to come to terms with the painful realization of their loved one’s obviously terminal suffering, as well as the complex emotions involved in survivor’s guilt which include shock, regret, anger, and more. Unfortunately, due to the stigma that still surrounds mental illness in our society, we fail to understand the unique suffering of families who experience a loss from suicide.

To “out” the cause of death when the cause is suicide is to act without thought to the family and friends of the decedent. The only people who should disclose the manner of death are the decedent’s loved ones, who own their grief and suffering, and only when they are ready and feel it necessary. The Forum owes Hagensen’s loved ones, and the community, an apology. — Ashley Middleton Peterson, Fargo

The complaints are not knew for Matthew Von Pinnon, the Forum’s editor, who has written numerous times (here, here and here), about the responsibility to treat family members with respect while not ignoring important elements of a news story.

“When I came to the newspaper 22 years ago, we didn’t report on suicide,” he told me this afternoon. That changed after talking with suicide prevention groups who said the silence was part of the problem, he said.

“The coroner has spoken to the family and passed along some of the family’s concerns,” he said.

So Von Pinnon called Hagensen’s widow to discuss what the newspaper would reveal and, perhaps more important, what the article would leave out.

That’s consistent with journalistic guidelines on reporting on suicide, which encourage journalists not to “sensationalize” a suicide by revealing, for example, the manner of death. The Forum also provided information in its article on recognizing signs of depression and suicidal intentions.

“I feel like it’s information that fills the void,” he said. “Others realize they’re not alone. One of the hardest things to deal with is the sense of isolation.”

Suicide in North Dakota is the number one cause of death for young people.

“I know people think we’re ‘vulture’ or we’re just trying to sell newspapers or get web clicks,” he said. “But we’re trying to be responsible and following guidelines of suicide prevention groups to provide information.”

You are the editor. What would you do?

  • Moffitt

    I would report it. The stigma of suicide will never go away if we can’t even talk about it.

    • Jasper

      I agree on this one. Having a parent commit suicide, I became acutely aware of that stigma. I purposely had the cause of death mentioned in the funeral service to help defray that stigma and secretiveness. I have always been very open about it when discussing the loss to friends and coworkers. I didn’t want to feel like people were whispering about it in the shadows. It is what it is and it doesn’t do anyone any good to feel like they cannot discuss it openly. It’s all about HOW people talk about it. It should, of course, be discussed honestly, tactfully and with sensitivity. But for everyone’s sake, it should not be swept under the rug with shame.

  • Kassie

    News organizations don’t decide if they report news or not based on how someone’s family feels. If they did, they wouldn’t report the names of rapists or mass murderers either. Cause of death is public information and if it is newsworthy, then the media should report on it. If people think cause of death shouldn’t be public information, then they should talk to their lawmakers, but then when someone like Prince dies, they can’t expect a release of cause of death.

  • ec99

    The Grand Forks Herald found itself in the same situation a few months ago, when the body of a high school senior was found. It first reported solely on the death, even though the reporter knew pills and alcohol and were found at the scene. The coroner more or less took on the responsibility of cause, declaring it accidental, even though there was a good deal of anecdotal evidence from friends that refuted that.

  • Bob Sinclair

    It sounds like the editor did the right thing and asked the family first. Isn’t that part of journalist’s ethic to get as many sides of the story before printing/posting? I imagine the blowback would have been a lot worse if this part of the story had not been done first, and would definitely call into question the editors’s and papers ethics.

  • HaroldAMaio

    —Unfortunately, due to the stigma that still surrounds mental illness
    in our society

    In some in our society, that number is dwindling as people realize the results of that prejudice.