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Speculation surrounding death of Orioles pitcher, executive Flanagan exemplifies difficulty in covering, explaining suicides

It’s a natural question to ask when someone does something as unnatural as killing themselves: Why did they do it?

But for journalists covering suicide, there can be no more thorny question, as evidenced by the furor over coverage of the death this week of former Baltimore Orioles pitcher and executive Mike Flanagan.

When news first broke Wednesday that police had found Flanagan’s body, some outlets seemed hesitant to even cite the circumstances of his death – especially because police had not yet ruled on the cause.

One standout was Gerry Sandusky, sportscaster for Baltimore NBC affiliate WBAL-TV, who reported the death as a suicide Wednesday and bluntly named a reason for the action.

“Sources confirm that Flanagan took his own life, despondent over a false perception from a community he loved of his role in the Orioles’ prolonged failure,” said Sandusky of the former pitcher, who helped lead the team as an executive from 2002 to 2008. “A relative confirmed that Flanagan has wrestled for some time now with the perception of fans and colleagues alike of his role in the team’s failures.”

The report touched off a host of journalism-related questions. Since Flanagan left no note, how would anybody – even a close relative – know for sure why he did something so extreme? And even if sources close to Flanagan are sure of his reasons for suicide, isn’t it still possible they were wrong?

Such questions only deepened following statements from Baltimore police Thursday confirming the Cy Young award winner had shot himself in the face, saying his wife, Alex Flanagan, attributed his despondency to money troubles. According to police, she last spoke with him at 1 a.m. Wednesday.

Baltimore Sun TV critic David Zurawik wrote that WBAL is standing by its initial reporting, quoting the station’s news director saying the report added context to Flanagan’s death.

“First of all, we didn’t report speculation,” WBAL news director Michelle Butt told Zurawik. “Our sources were of a nature that it was not speculative. I’ve thought a lot about this in the last 24 hours, and suicide often leads to a lot of rumor mongering. And Mike Flanagan didn’t deserve that.”

Without knowing WBAL’s sources and what they said, it is tough to refute Butt’s assertions. But it certainly seems there might have been, at the very least, multiple reasons for Flanagan’s act – which means tacking his action without equivocation to one reason is most certainly speculation.

I faced a similar situation as a reporter in 2007, when a local weather forecaster killed himself as police were entering his home, tipped off by his wife and a close friend.

This person had left a note and had talked with his wife and best friend by telephone soon before committing the act. Still, police took some time developing their report on the incident and family members circled the wagons, limiting public comment, which only racheted up public speculation on the cause.

The friend at the scene told me that forecaster struggled with depression. I wound up writing a story detailing how colleagues at the TV station where he worked, who had known him for many years, had no idea he was struggling with such thoughts.

Mainstream news outlets handle suicides oddly, declining to cover routine incidents for fear of inspiring copycats, but lavishing coverage on famous people who end their lives, such as Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain. So the public may have little idea how often suicides occur – in 2005, the county in Florida where I live, Pinellas, had more than twice as many suicides as murders.

The big ideas suicide prevention experts passed on to me were: Don’t have guns around the home of someone who is depressed (90 percent of suicides are linked to mental issues and guns are a leading means). And don’t assume one reason can be cited as the cause for a suicide.

When police later revealed the forecaster was despondent after admitting he’d had an affair, some coverage pushed the line in attaching his shame to the act.

That 2007 suicide even prompted the St. Petersburg-based school for journalists, the Poynter Institute, to write a story for its website. The piece quoted Dr. Yeates Conwell, co-director of the Center for the Study and Prevention of Suicide at the University of Rochester Medical Center, noting that media have a tendency to apply too-simple explanations to a suicide.

“The suicidal state,” Conwell told Poynter, “is not one in which reason is functioning effectively, most, if not all the time.” People who commit suicide, he said, are rarely capable of determining the causes of their own despair, the story noted.

All of this was rattling around in my head as I watched online video of WBAL’s Sandusky pronouncing with such certainty the motivations behind such a senseless act.

I hope, for many reasons, WBAL is accurate in its reporting. Getting at the circumstances behind a well-known person’s suicide is difficult, and often involves presenting a picture of an admired figure that is controversial and upsetting for those who liked the person.

But my own experience shows how lightly journalists should tread in such matters. Because, when even the person who commits suicide may not know why they’re doing it, how can anyone else say for sure?

Eric Deggans is TV and Media Critic for the St. Petersburg Times and a 1990 graduate of the Indiana University School of Journalism. His work has also appeared in the Washington Post, Village Voice, VIBE magazine, Chicago Tribune, Detroit Free Press, Chicago Sun-Times and many other publications. He also writes a blog on media, The Feed.

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