To take on a sensitive and serious subject like suicide, I’ll preface with a commitment of respect and sympathy toward anyone who has lost a loved one to suicide or is suffering from any kind of mental illness. I’ve also included links to some really great resources at the bottom of this post to check out if you would like.
The Story: Poynter’s Tampa Bay Times recently profiled a woman named Gretchen Molanner who suffered from a rare sexual disease. At the beginning of this week, the sheriff’s office announced Gretchen had committed suicide the day after the story ran.
An uncomfortable back and forth has since developed when Saint Peters Blog creator Peter Schorsch blasted the Times for the story. Schorsch called it sensational, for the purpose of driving traffic to the site. He also placed a large percent of the blame for the woman’s death on the Times itself:
“While none of us will likely ever really know why Molannen committed suicide, we can all do the math. Woman tells story to the newspaper. Newspaper publishes sensational story. Woman commits suicide the day the story is published online.One plus one equals blood on the Times‘ hands.”
The article was met with some harsh critique that raised a few important ethical questions:
- Was the story irresponsible?
- Should papers routinely read entire stories to profile subjects?
- Was there a fact-checking malfunction?
As a recent graduate from journalism school, relatively, I know nothing about professional journalism. Still, there are a few facts about this story that strike me as significant.
Posted on a support group from women with persistent genital arousal disorder (the disorder Gretchen suffered with), the story had a secondary significance. The paper reported it collected phone calls from legal and medical professionals, and women who found Gretchen to be “awesome… for sharing your story that was difficult to read let alone live.”
Secondly, Gretchen read the article word for word before it was published. The Times reported that she only requested a few small changes. There is also a released email where “flattered,”she vehemently thanks the Times for profiling her and looks forward to seeing it posted.
Finally, Gretchen spoke openly about her emotional agony and three-times attempted suicide.
These three items have garnered scrutiny. The Times has been accused of taking advantage of an unstable woman. But here is the thing: I feel like a story about a woman’s sexual disorder should not be sensational or as Schorsch says “does not belong in a mainstream paper.” A chronic disorder about sexuality could be a science niche story—easily shoved aside or buried. Maybe that is why the Times decided to run this story. Maybe it is about time news features move past archaic societal conventions like female modesty about personal sexual health. It’s not surprising that critics would label this topic as sensational but why?
Aside from her chronic biological disorder, Gretchen suffered from media often treats both mental disorders and sexual disorders as taboo. Funny there are now less men suffering shame from having erectile dysfunction. Thanks in part to commercials like this. But Gretchen lived with a life-disrupting disorder that was not at all funny or sensational.
The Times reported: “Over the previous 16 years it had turned her from an outgoing young woman with an active romantic life into a hermit, forced to masturbate for hours for just a few minutes of relief.”
This is the point in Gretchen Molannen’s story that invariably makes people snicker, or wince, or make jokes like: “I wish my wife had that.” That one came from a doctor.”
Reading the copy, this was not a “Freak Show” story but one about humankind’s treatment of women’s sexuality. If we had time and the best sociologists we could write an entire thesis about how this problem persists because of the way we talk about female sexuality.
It is implied under Schorsch’s critique that OBVIOUSLY a woman’s whose sexuality is in the media would feel the need to kill herself. Which is of course, terrible and while its intent is to protect Gretchen, it is the kind of thinking that betrays all women who want to speak and hear about their sexual questions.
So there is a gender social issue plug that really deserves an entire journalism project.
The next thing to think about is the treatment of mental illness. Schorsch’s commentary links one development to suicide in a way that misunderstands depression. Speaking from unfortunate personal experience, when someone close commits suicide it is easy to ask why. What exactly happened that caused this person. Or— what could have been so terrible?
That thinking is an unhealthy development of a tragic situation. Depression is an illness, and it is more complex than a math problem. The cause-effect theory Schorsch suggests is weak. Yes, it may have been true, but if the email Gretchen wrote days before she died is valid, it seems there were circumstances beyond the paper’s control. It is wrong to publicly assume blame when Gretchen’s emotional agony is misunderstood.
So should a news media avoid doing a personal profile about someone who has severe depression?
Finally, there is the fact that Schorsch has done literally zero field reporting on this topic. (Neither have I, but I’m acting a moderator here). While Schorsch sits behind his desk damming a paper for the suicide of a human being, there are complex issues about journalism and the treatment of those most vulnerable. Discussion, not accusation would celebrate Gretchen’s life.
P.S. Oddly enough I heard about this topic when I was young watching an episode of Opera that used to air between 2-5 on weekdays. Taboo?
If you or anyone you know is suffering from depression or is thinking about committing suicide please know there are people that care about you. Browse the following links for information: