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Penn student newspaper editor: Administration tried to stifle suicide coverage

The Daily Pennsylvanian‘s coverage of student suicides was apparently too intense for University of Pennsylvania officials.

An editor from Penn’s student newspaper wrote this morning in a senior column that university officials met with members of the staff, telling them the paper’s coverage of a string of suicides at Penn was irresponsible and that they should re-think their reporting.

In the column titled “How to count cop cars,” city news editor Sarah Smith wrote in her final piece for The Daily Pennsylvanian about the paper’s coverage of a recent spate of suicides at Penn. She describes a visit to the newspaper’s offices from a senior school official.

Here’s what she wrote:

There was one beginning-of-the-year meeting with a senior administrator when I knew we were in trouble. We’d just run a story about a student who killed herself, and we got indications from Penn’s communication staff that the administration was unhappy. Sitting in our office, the administrator told us about the consequences of what we’d done. We, the student newspaper, had been irresponsible in printing what actually happened to the student. We could even trigger our fellow students to kill themselves — did we really want that on our conscience? Because, the administrator told us, swiveling back and forth on a maroon desk chair, it would be.

When reached this morning by phone, Smith wouldn’t elaborate on the meeting itself or when it took place, saying only that “they were just expressing concern about the reporting. It was coming from a genuine place.”

“They definitely said, ‘be careful, you guys might be contributing to it,'” she said. “It was hard for us to hear… but I wouldn’t say there was malice.”

Penn spokesman Ron Ozio, when reached by phone this morning, said he wasn’t aware of any such meeting, but that he would respond to Billy Penn after inquiring about it with others. We’ll update this story once he does.

Philadelphia’s Ivy League school saw a total of six students commit suicide since August 2013, putting the suicide rate at Penn about five times higher than the national average. After the suicides garnered national attention, outcry against Penn started.

The Penn Task Force on Student Psychological Health and Welfare was deployed by the university in February 2014 after four students had committed suicide since August 2013, three of them in the early months of 2014. While the task force was working on its report, two more students committed suicide. Click here to read more about the task force’s report.

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