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Why you didn't see Post Bulletin footage of a suicide attempt

News reporting that informs you sometimes can hurt vulnerable people. Here's how one coverage decision was made.

Jeff Pieters column sig
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Editor's note: The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline toll-free hotline is available 24/7 at 1-800-273-8255.

The man in the red T-shirt dangled over the railing of the bridge above U.S. Highway 52 near Apache Mall. Traffic backed up for at least a mile in both directions. It was a tense scene. The man's bicycle smashed to the pavement below before Rochester police officers scrambled in, grabbed the man by the belt, and hoisted him to safety.

As luck would have it, a Post Bulletin photographer was Johnny-on-the-spot and captured the entire harrowing event, including the dramatic rescue, in photos and video.

But you didn't see our footage. Why?

To some degree, it goes back to a conversation I'd had about three weeks ago with Gayle Olsen, a retired Winona State University instructor and founder of a Rochester nonprofit that serves the needs of people who have a family member who struggles with drug or alcohol addiction.

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Gayle called me then, in late April, to respond to a police blotter brief we'd published about an incident in which police officers smashed through a car window to capture a suspect. The 41-year-old woman had a warrant for missing a court date.

What we didn't know — couldn't know — at the time of our report, and what Gayle and family members of the woman reached out to tell us, is that the female suspect has struggled mightily with drug addiction for about 10 years. The family — uncles, aunts, siblings and, significantly, children — are desperate for her to get the help she needs. They have suffered a lot, as you might imagine.

Gayle asked me: What was the purpose of our report? This was a minor crime, in the grand scheme of things, involving a vulnerable person who's not fully in control of her own actions.

Why indeed? It's a hard question to answer. And let's acknowledge that this is a thin skin to start scratching. It doesn't take long to break through. The question of "why" has the potential to unravel justification for a lot of the coverage we do — stories that you, a reader, might very well find necessary, or simply just enjoy having.

As humans in society, we have an interest in our fellow people, the different ways they live their lives, the things that they achieve, and the fates that sometimes befall them. We expect, in our free society, to be informed. And yes, there will be hard and unpleasant stories in the Post Bulletin from time to time.

But when there is a cost to the subject, we have to weigh that against the public's desire to know. Does someone who has a drug addiction deserve to be spotlighted for his or her fairly minor misdeeds? Should the sight of somebody having their worst day — a mental health breakdown on a highway bridge in Rochester — be put on display to thousands of pairs of eyes?

And, as Gayle reminded me, sometimes it's more than the individual who bears the cost of the stigma and shame. "There's so little awareness of the impact on families," she said. "The hidden, invisible and innocent victims."

In the end, after much thought and discussion, we made the choice. We would not publish or post our images of what happened on that bridge.

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We did run a brief article about the incident . We respected your right to know why you were stuck on the highway for so long. We simply stopped short of levying an incalculable cost to the person who was the cause of it all.

Did we make the right call? You might disagree. Gayle, though, thought our story was effective and appropriate in its manner of informing the public while not causing more harm.

"This is a person who was suffering," she said. "Whoever he is, he has a story that brought him to a pretty desperate point."

And, thanks to the four officers who saved him, the man has a story that continues. Maybe that footage of ours will have its eventual use as part of a story of recovery, heroism and gratitude. That would be a good use.

Jeff Pieters is editor of the Post Bulletin. He can be reached by phone, 507-285-7748, or email, jpieters@postbulletin.com.

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Related Topics: PUBLIC SAFETY
Jeff Pieters is editor of the Post Bulletin. He joined the staff as a reporter in 2001, and has been editor since 2019. Readers can reach Jeff at 507-285-7748 or jpieters@postbulletin.com.
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