Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Palo Alto clamps down on public information

Palo Alto officials are taking a different approach when it comes to communicating with the media in the wake of four suicides by teenagers on the Caltrain tracks.

Bay City News reported Tuesday:
    This morning, Palo Alto police Agent Dan Ryan declined to say whether the teen killed Monday was a student at Gunn, explaining that publicizing details in such cases can contribute to "copycat-ism and the cluster effect." 
    Caltrain spokeswoman Christine Dunn said transit police are still investigating whether Monday's death was a suicide. 
    "We owe it to the victim as well as to the community to do a complete and thorough investigation before we release any information," she said.
The Mercury News and Daily News said in today's editions:
    Palo Alto police Sgt. Dan Ryan would say only that the victim was a male struck by a train about 50 yards south of the West Meadow Drive crossing in Palo Alto. 
    "We're trying to avoid creating a greater cluster of these," Ryan said. "The research we're being told is that the more we talk about it and romanticize it, the easier it is that mentally ill or depressed people will make that leap. We're taking a stand and not releasing more information."
     Kathleen Ruegsegger, a school district spokeswoman, also said there would be "no statement from the district or the school."
The decision to clamp down on public information runs contrary to recommendations the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) gives for prevention and containment of suicide clusters. Section VIII of the CDC's guidelines begins with this statement: "A timely flow of accurate, appropriate information should be provided to the media."

These are a few of the points the CDC makes in its advice to government officials or others coordinating a response to a suicide cluster:
    • (B) Appoint a single media spokesperson from each of the relevant community sectors — public health, education, mental health, local government, and the like. 
    • (C) These spokespersons should provide frequent, timely access to the media and present a complete and honest picture of the pertinent events. When appropriate, regularly scheduled press conferences should be held. 
    • (C. 1.) Avoid "whitewashing" — that is, saying that everything is under control or giving other assurances that may later prove unwarranted. This practice would undermine the credibility of the community spokespersons.
The CDC guidelines also say, "Gaining the cooperation of media representatives in this regard is also a formidable task. In the midst of a crisis, the frequent presentation of accurate and credible information is the best means of establishing such cooperation."

The CDC guidelines also suggest that officials convince community members not to comment to the press and instead refer comments to the appointed spokespersons. The public, of course, has a constitutional right to talk to a reporter at any time. 

For additional information on the coverage of suicides, here are two links:

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

The policy of these Palo Alto officials seems so defensive and a waste of time. They should be concentrating on stopping the next suicide, not trying to edit newspapers or newscasts.

Kip said...

in my experience, policies that shut out the media always backfire ... if the police refuse to talk about a major crime, just find witnesses, neighbors, family members who will fill in the blanks ... with a little leg work i found I can get much better information than the incomplete press statements from some bumbling PIO ... do this enough times and the police will start talking again because they want their spin in media ...

my guess is that the people deciding to shut down public information in this case are very inexperienced ... they've probably never done this before ... they don't have any idea what they're doing other than perhaps going to a workshop to learn to be a PIO ... you'd think that in a town as well educated and as upscale as Palo Alto that their public institutions would have better trained personnel.

Anonymous said...

Bottom line: If it is not legally restricted, the police, schools, etc. have no right to restrict access to basic information based merely on what they think is "the right thing." Time to call the laywers, First Amendment Coalition, etc.

Anonymous said...

If Palo Alto isn't following the CDC's guidelines when it comes to the media, you've got to wonder if they are ignoring those guidelines in other areas?

Roger B said...

Last time I checked, Palo Alto police do not have jurisdiction over the Caltrain right-of-way. Caltrain outsources its police work to the San Mateo County Sheriff's Office, which investigates all criminal activities on the railroad's right-of-way. So I'm surprised the Daily News is even interviewing a Palo Alto police spokesman about a railroad incident. And I am even more surprised that the Palo Alto spokesman says he's not going to release information that he wouldn't legally have anyway.