The careful balance in reporting on campus deaths

When a campus mourns tragedies like student deaths, there is no playbook telling you how to feel. There’s no script that helps comfort the family and friends of those we have lost.

During the last three months, The Hatchet has reported on three student deaths, including one confirmed suicide, one apparent suicide and one death with an unconfirmed cause.

When students die on campus, it’s the toughest story our reporters cover. As a media outlet, we are obligated to serve the public interest by pursuing the truth because without a full set of facts, community healing can be upended by rumors and hearsay. We are all part of the same community at GW, and we are all affected by these tragedies. When we report, sensitivity is just as important as accuracy and integrity.

I’d like to give readers a look into our guidelines for reporting on death, focusing on situations that do not involve criminal acts.

Most of these do’s and don’ts are standards across journalism. Some are tailored to the fact that we report within a small ecosystem. All support our mission as “an educational and informational service independent of, but benefiting, the GW community.”

Confirm with official sources
We set a higher bar for credibility when considering which sources to trust in the course of reporting on student deaths.

When we can confirm with the Metropolitan Police Department, University Police Department or GW administration that a death investigation is underway on campus, we move quickly to inform the community. We never report rumors or secondary reports from social media or other news outlets.

If confirmed by the city police, these stories may be published before the University has released official information or even confirmed the death on the record. Colleges have no legal requirement to report student deaths to the entire community, though GW typically does when those deaths occur on campus.

We only report what we know to be fact. If police can only confirm the presence of a death investigation in a residence hall – but not the victim’s gender, age, name or whether the deceased is a student – then we report the bare details.

Providing full information
As reporting continues, we seek to confirm the deceased’s name and age.

This information is found in public records that MPD files within hours of an incident. The official cause of death becomes public information in a report filed by the city’s chief medical examiner days or weeks later.

Why do we report the names of students who have died, even when their family members may prefer privacy? Because the death of a student becomes a public act in the community. Grief usually hits family members hardest, but friends, classmates, hallmates and everyone in the community also need fully verified information on what happened.

Without complete information, like the names of the deceased, our duties to help readers understand the possible social, cultural and institutional influences of that death are hamstrung.

Once we have confirmed a death is being investigated and obtain the name of the deceased from public documents, we have the obligation to sensitively seek comment from a direct family member. Though we understand that grieving family members may not want to speak to the media, it gives them a chance to contribute to the story and it gives us the opportunity to say that we will publish a confirmed name of the deceased.

Our pursuit of sensitivity
When the media isn’t careful, reporting on death can do more harm than good.

We do not report the specific method of death or graphic details unless the method of death becomes a trend that requires public awareness, such as substance abuse. We must, however, note the official cause of death.

For suspected suicide victims, we recognize that suicide is related to complex mental health issues and cannot be summed up by factors that at first glance could appear to be causal, like, for example, failing a class. While we try to capture lost students’ lives in our writing, we do not jump to conclusions about what led to suicide.

As reporters seek details for obituaries, we gather stories and anecdotes from friends and family to provide a full remembrance of deceased students.

The Hatchet editors and reporters who report these stories follow these guidelines and understand the magnitude of the tragedies. By providing fuller context of our reporting process, we hope readers see how we strive for integrity in our reporting, especially when writing the most difficult stories.

Cory Weinberg, a senior majoring in economics, is The Hatchet’s editor in chief.

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