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Matt Von Pinnon, Published November 12 2011

Von Pinnon: Reporting on suicide has changed in recent years

Our handling of a news story last week upset a few of our readers who called me or wrote letters to the editor.

The complaints involved our reporting on the death of longtime pediatrician Dr. David Blehm, who worked at Sanford Health the past 12 years and last May was named a medical director at Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Dakota.

Last Monday morning, Dr. Blehm took his own life at his south Fargo home.

We learned of that news a day later, prompted by our routine check of police records and a sharp spike in people searching inforum.com for news containing Dr. Blehm’s name.

We reported, both online Tuesday and in print Wednesday, that Dr. Blehm died from suicide. Before we published the story, editors extensively discussed whether to report the manner of death.

Ultimately, we chose to report it for several different reasons, the first being that when someone dies an untimely death, the first question that gets asked is, “How did he die?”

Not answering that question leaves the questioner to speculate. If as reporters we can answer questions, we should.

It is true that many suicides do not make the news, and the manner of death is often not mentioned in the person’s obituary. Often, those people aren’t newsmakers or public figures.

So is Dr. Blehm a public figure, and if so, does that change how specifically his death is reported?

That’s a tough one. I don’t necessarily consider Dr. Blehm a public figure, but by nature of his work, he does have a higher profile in the community, just like police officers, firefighters and teachers.

People like Dr. Blehm touch thousands of people’s lives over long careers, so their deaths – and arguably how they die – matter to a lot of people.

Also – and this has to be said – we don’t expect doctors to end their own lives, even though statistics show it happens more than we might think.

When I came to The Forum more than 17 years ago, we had a practice of not reporting on suicides unless it was done in public. If it was done in public, we couldn’t ignore it because people would know.

But society’s view on suicide is slowly starting to change. We are beginning to realize how many people are touched by it because it has happened in our families, to our friends, or to those we know.

Over the past week, I’ve heard from a few people concerned that because we reported it, more people might attempt suicide as a final solution to a temporary problem.

I feel just the opposite. I think, if anything, it has urged people here to reach out to friends or family members they see struggling. Dr. Blehm’s death shocked us into awareness and action.

A few readers were also upset that we contacted the family in the aftermath of the ordeal.

We do that not to prey upon a family’s emotions but rather to give them the opportunity to talk about their loved one.

Being in this business a fair while, I can tell you that families often cherish the opportunity to discuss their loved one with the public and occasionally get upset with us for not reaching out to them when such stories are reported.

We always try to be polite and respect their wishes.

Suicide is often regarded as a very private matter. Often it’s carried out alone, leaving families and loved ones with many questions and regrets.

It’s important that we not allow it to go unseen.


Von Pinnon is editor of The Forum. Reach him at (701) 241-5579.