The Cluster Conundrum: Tough Subject
CHICAGOMAG.COM EXCLUSIVE: Bryan Smith on the challenges of writing “The Cluster Conundrum”
Like many Chicagoans, I felt heartbroken when I heard that not one, not two, but three teenagers from Lake Forest had killed themselves in as many months earlier this year. The unfolding tragedy was agonizing, alarming, and unfathomable. It was also deeply strange: Three teens, all from the same high school, using the same method—putting themselves in front of Metra trains. What was that? A statistical fluke? An odd coincidence?
The questions nagged at me, and I’m sure many others (especially and most immediately, of course, the people of that beautiful North Shore town) as a human being, and as a journalist. I—and I suspected, our readers—wanted to know more.
Sadly, investigating and writing about death comes with what I do. I’ve written about parents who’ve lost children to disease and crime, people who have suffered unimaginable loss and unspeakable tragedy. I was the witness to an execution. I’ve even written about suicide.
On one hand, we as journalists are supposed to maintain an emotional distance when we write about such subjects. On the other, such stories turn on empathy–putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. It almost always hurts, on some level, to talk to someone in the throes of suffering and anguish. This story was no different.
Except that it also scared me.
There’s a reason the media rarely covers suicides—one that goes beyond the desire not to exploit personal tragedy. Numerous studies have drawn a link between how suicide stories are covered and a phenomenon experts call “suicide contagion”—copycat deaths, in layman’s terms. The more I looked into the research, the more I began to question how the Lake Forest story should be written, or whether it should be written at all.
The thought that something I wrote could contribute to another death was beyond daunting: it was terrifying. Equally as grim was the prospect of adding to the anguish of a community already reeling with hurt, fear, and confusion. No story is worth those things.
So I called researchers who examined the relationship between the media and so-called “cluster” suicides. They said I should write the story. A thoughtful examination of the deaths, sensitively handled, could be a positive, both for the community and our readers.
Early on, that meant making some key decisions: Would this story be about the kids themselves? About their lives leading up to their deaths? Or was the more important story, at least in terms of our readers, the phenomenon and the dynamics behind it?
As a storyteller, my initial instincts told me to go where the raw emotion was, which would mean delving into the students’ lives. The more I thought about it, however, and the more I spoke with various experts, it became clear that such an approach would not be illuminative, and could be dangerous.
So I chose the latter. It hardly made reporting the story easier. I still needed to talk to students at Lake Forest High, some of whom knew one or more of the three teens. I trekked up to the town and simply talked to the first students I encountered as they made their way home after school. On one level, I hate having to ask about such a charged, and still emotionally raw, set of events. I certainly did with this story. The teens I spoke with were all thoughtful, articulate, and willing—almost eager—to talk.
I also visited each of the locations where the three students died. Train tracks are always eerie and somewhat menacing to me. When I was about three years old, the car I was riding in was actually hit by a train. I thankfully survived. But being at those spots was not easy. I needed to talk to parents and people in the community. Again, they were gracious with my difficult and sometimes clumsy questions.
As for putting what I saw and heard on paper, we followed the advice of experts, almost to the letter. We did not use the word “suicide” in the headlines. We used the phrase “died by suicide” or “killed themselves” rather than “committed suicide” because the latter suggests criminality, according to the World Health Organization’s media guidelines. We emphasized that 90 percent of teens who die by their own hand had a previous diagnosis of a psychiatric illness. We pointed out that people who kill themselves almost never do so over one single difficult moment, such as a breakup or a fight with parents.
We departed with some experts in that we did describe, in some detail, the scene and setting of one of the suicides. I also wrote briefly about one of the sites. I did so only after consulting with one of the leading authorities on suicide clusters and the media, David Phillips, a sociologist with the University of California San Diego, who read those passages and gave his OK.
In one sense, I say all this to explain to our readers how difficult a story it was to write and the pains we took to make sure we were being as responsible as we could be. In another sense, I do so to reassure myself.
“It is great that you care about the effects of these stories on susceptible teens,” Phillips told me. “But I think that your prime obligation is tell a nuanced, valuable story, not to serve as a branch of the CDC.”
I surely hope I did the former.