Von Pinnon: We strive to respectfully report on suicide
I knew Tim and Tammy Hagensen before their TNT's Diner in West Fargo was famous.
A foursome of Forum writers—Chuck Klosterman, Tammy Swift, Ross Raihala and me—would frequent for lunch north Fargo's Trollwood Cafe, an out-of-the-way little diner featuring Tim's homestyle cooking and Tammy's friendly hospitality. Years later, that dynamic duo took their recipes for success to West Fargo, where their diner became one of the hotspots for breakfast and lunch.
So it was heart-breaking on April 15 to learn of Tim's death at age 53. Dozens of people had been looking for him when he hadn't returned home the night before. He was found alone in his vehicle in a semi-rural area just west of West Fargo.
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Police at the time would only say no foul play was suspected.
Like many in the community, I wondered how he died. Being in the news business, I ran into many people who asked me if I knew how he died. I did not know, and I told them as much. I don't like to speculate.
It might surprise readers to know that while we in the news business believe in transparency, we also strive to be respectful of those thrust into the news.
Because Tim was a well-known member of the community, and because the search for him was so public, we decided to seek the cause of his death.
Once that became a public document on June 10, I called widow Tammy Hagensen to discuss its findings.
I told her I was sorry to learn of Tim's death, we reminisced about old times at the Trollwood Cafe and we talked about the future of the West Fargo diner they owned.
I explained to her that we felt compelled to report the cause of Tim's death as suicide and that we would handle it as sensitively as we could, following the "Recommendations for Reporting on Suicide" established by the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention and other like-minded groups.
Those guidelines, among many, recommend we not sensationalize the story or the headline, but rather include the facts plainly and simply. Our story ran on the bottom of Page 6 under the headline, "Diner co-owner died of suicide." We also try to run a sidebar with all suicide stories that helps people understand warning signs and ways to get help, per those same recommendations.
If Tammy and her family had their choice, they may not have wanted us to report Tim's cause of death, but Tammy said she understood why we would.
In the days since reporting the news, we've been getting criticized in letters to the editor and on social media for not respecting the family's privacy on this matter, some saying it should be the family's choice, and theirs alone, when deciding whether to disclose the cause of death as suicide.
I can appreciate that perspective, even if I don't agree with it from a public health standpoint.
When I started at The Forum 22 years ago, we did not report on suicide. It was a private thing, and families who experienced it suffered privately. This was the prevailing approach in media, and it still is in many media markets. But in the absence of factual information, rumors tend to fill the void.
After hearing from many who experienced the death of loved ones by suicide, it became clear to me that this stigma toward suicide and mental health issues could only be undone by bringing it into the light. We need to talk about it more, not less, and reporting the facts plainly and simply is just one way of thrusting the issue into the public square.