Franklin James Cook

Media Coverage of Canandaigua Suicide Misses Key Truths

In Media, Prevention on May 27, 2009 at 7:01 am

By Elana Premack Sandler, LCSW, MPH

On May 5, 17-year-old Thomas Kane died by suicide at his school, Canandaigua Academy in upstate New York. Police investigation following the death showed that Kane had at the ready in his locker a shotgun, extra ammunition, and two Molotov cocktails, and in his car he had liquid accelerant and three lighters.If Kane’s original intentions weren’t made abundantly clear by what police discovered in his possession, he also kept a journal in which he laid out his plans to kill others in his school.

The reason I–a Bostonian by way of being a Washingtonian with few connections to teens living in upstate New York–know these details of a young man’s life and the tragedy that occurred in his school is because they were reported by local Canandaigua media outlets. The media covered Kane’s death in depth, probably because it occurred in a public place and definitely because of the information about the police investigation that came out within days of his suicide.

Explicit journal excerpts were published in one newspaper. While initially one television station chose not to use Kane’s name in their reports , once the information about his possible plans to kill others in his school was released, the station identified Kane.

At first, I questioned why media would report such details. Why would journal excerpts be included in news articles? Isn’t it sensationalizing a tragic death to draw attention to the intimate details of a young man’s psyche? But then I realized that I wanted to capture those same details as I told the story to you, for those very details are part of what makes Kane’s story newsworthy. However, if there could be such a thing as “just another school shooter,” a phrase Kane himself used in his journal, Kane certainly did not fit that description. Ultimately, he decided not to kill anyone but himself. That fact highlights a sad trend in media coverage: Whenever there is a school shooting, the significance of the suicide is lost because of the drama of the murders, yet the part of the story about the person’s suicide deserves attention.

In an age when schools are reeling from previously unimaginable violence that has occurred in their classrooms and cafeterias, troubled teenagers make news. Those of us who work in violence and suicide prevention are at times looking for the same elusive clues as PTA presidents and so-called soccer moms, seeking a better understanding of what drives young people to take their own lives and, along the way, the lives of others.

In this instance, the possibility of homicide being involved eclipsed Kane’s personal story, and he was represented as “just another school shooter” without even being one, his story destined to be told in the way it didn’t end instead of in the way it did.

The complexity of suicide is not a story many media venture to cover. But because of the public safety implications and their duty to cover news that matters, media have an obligation to cover stories that ended the way Kane’s could have. If it had been a school shooting, we would all still be asking how it could have been prevented, but the focus would be almost entirely on the school shooting and hardly at all on the suicide. That focus has caused us to miss the point about suicide itself in stories such as this one. [continued … read the full article here]

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