Caltrain’s Media Roundtable Creates Promising Dialogue on Fatality Coverage

By Will Reisman, @WillReisman

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Dr. Scott Gabree of the Volpe Center addresses media professionals.

A roundtable discussion facilitated by Caltrain that focused on media coverage of railway fatalities provided new insight, productive ideas and promising dialogue on a subject that has raised difficult questions for  local communities.

This year, Caltrain has experienced 12 fatalities. In 2014, there were 10 fatalities. Of those, only two were unintended. As a member of the regional community, Caltrain is working closely with the cities, civic groups, mental health and suicide prevention organizations to address the root cause of these disturbing incidents and help to provide support and resources for communities struggling to address these issues.

That’s why Caltrain elected to host the roundtable discussion on Tuesday, which featured a four-person panel comprised of mental health experts and media veterans. The panel was moderated by Paul Costello, spokesman for the Stanford University School of Medicine. Reporters from various local media outlets, alongside public information officers and other staffers representing Bay Area agencies and organizations attended the meeting, which was held in Millbrae.

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Dr. Shashank Joshi, a psychiatrist at the Lucile Salter Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford, addresses the group.

The assembly featured a presentation from Dr. Scott Gabree, a specialist on rail suicide, and related media coverage, at the John A. Volpe National Transportation Systems Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Gabree studied a series of high-profile rail suicides from across the globe and examined the impact of media coverage of those tragic events. In each of the cases, prominent media coverage of the fatalities resulted in significant spikes in similarly-staged suicides.

During his talk, Gabree discussed these important decisions that media outlets should raise when considering covering suicides:

  • Consider if a story is necessary or important for the public to be aware of
  • Consider how many stories, of a particular event or type of event, have been run recently—multiple stories in succession are linked to an increase in copycat behaviors
  • Only a coroner of medical examiner can officially determine the cause of death—speculation may interfere with ongoing investigations

Gabree exhibited how media coverage may result in “contagion”— where local residents might witness news coverage of suicides and pursue similar methods. To reduce the impact of this effect, Gabree suggested several responsible media reporting practices:

  • Reduce the prominence of the story by avoiding big or sensationalized headlines
  • Consider running the story on inside pages of newspapers and do not use the term “suicide” in the headline
  • Minimize details about the location or method of death
  • Limit depictions of location, method, public memorials, funerals, or grieving family members, as such depictions may glorify the death or the act
  • Avoid simplification of suicide, such as indicating that a single event can cause such an act

That presentation was followed by a talk from Dr. Shashank Joshi, a psychiatrist at the Lucile Salter Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford who reiterated several of Gabree’s main points. He also emphasized that teenagers are highly susceptible to the influence of media coverage on suicides.

The two media veterans on the panel, Trapper Byrne of the San Francisco Chronicle, and Greg DeRego of ABC7, discussed the difficult decisions they faced when reporting on these issues, specifically the struggle of determining the public’s right to know—particularly when services are impacted that affect their daily lives—with the potentially harmful fallout of their coverage.

The back-and-forth discourse from the meeting has helped lay the framework for a mutually-beneficial relationship between media organizations and public transportation agencies dealing with the issue of suicide. The media and Caltrain are both interested in finding solutions to this difficult problem.

The takeaways from Tuesday’s meeting will also play a significant role in deciding how Caltrain will disseminate information to the media in the future regarding  fatalities on its right-of-way. Caltrain is mindful of the role it needs to play in alerting its passengers, community members and the media about fatalities, but the agency also has to find ways to mitigate these tragic events from occurring again in the future.

Caltrain always welcomes feedback from the public on ways it could more effectively communicate its messages. Anyone interested in providing input can email socialmedia@caltrain.com.

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