Ambitious reporting is a long-standing tradition of journalism. But, as the Columbia Journalism Review noted recently, there's also a long-standing tradition of not reporting on suicide.
The newsworthiness of an individual's death, privacy concerns for family members and fears of “copycats” have kept such coverage rare. In light of these factors, our decision to spend nearly a year on the topic of rural suicide came after we learned that Amador County, with a population of less than 40,000, has the third-highest suicide rate in the state.
With the support of a prestigious fellowship from the University of Southern California’s Center for Health Journalism, CapRadio health care reporter Sammy Caiola began the project by researching data on rural suicide. Our community engagement strategist, jesikah maria ross, took on the task of creating a plan to build community trust and relationships to better inform our reporting, and to ensure Amador residents were guiding our coverage. The first community meeting brought nearly 50 people together from Amador County and surrounding areas.
The personal experiences residents have shared with us have been heartbreaking. Amador County officials and community groups have shared their challenges. And while there is no simple answer for why Amador County’s rate is so high, our reporting and community feedback suggest that there are relative factors for why suicide tends to be more common in rural areas than in cities.
As I was finishing-up this editor's note, I learned that there was another murder/suicide in Amador County. It was the second in less than five months. As I returned home, my street was lined with cars. You see, I live in Amador County, and it turns out the deceased couple had lived one street over. The wife’s brother, who works closely with my nextdoor neighbor, lives on my street a few houses down, and the family was gathering there to console each other. The couple’s youngest child is my son's schoolmate.
I’d like to say this is the first time a suicide has reached the edges of my life, but that’s not the case.
I grew up in Amador County and have a connection to at least five people who have died by suicide: a star classmate of my brother’s died in the spring semester of their senior year, two of my classmates were gone soon after high school, my mother’s best friend lost her husband to suicide, and most recently, a few years ago, shortly into the new school year, a high school student shot himself. Of course, I didn’t have data to back up my assumption, but this seemed like a lot for a county of less than 40,000.
While the impetus for this project came from my personal experience, our dedication to the reporting and community engagement stem from recognizing suicide as a public health issue.
We undertook this reporting knowing we had great responsibility to those willing to share their stories and pain. Nearly a year into this, we are overwhelmed and grateful to everyone who has stepped forward to help guide the reporting.
Today, as my neighbor, my son and the rest of my small town try to make sense of the most recent incident, I'm hopeful CapRadio’s reporting will continue to raise awareness in meaningful ways for the community.