New York University is regarded as an excellent school all over the nation. However, in recent years it has not been in the news in praise of its education, but for something with a more morbid tone – suicides. In 2004 there were at least 6 publicized suicides in NYU. In 2005, there were 5. Newspapers jumped on this (no pun intended), calling it a “string of suicides” that has “shocked” the nation. The articles about this issue range in the way they talk about the suicides in general, the students, the school, and the effects this has on other colleges. It is interesting to examine these differences and the implications they have on the way the media write about NYU and New York in general. Is this a true ‘epidemic’ or are the media blowing the issue out of proportion to create what Mark Fishman would call a “crime wave”?
Crime waves begin as themes. There are multiple incidents that are linked together due to a similar kind of crime. They might be the same crime happening on numerous occasions, or different crimes that can fall under one category as defined by the theme. Crime waves are “little more than the continued and heavy coverage of numerous occurrences which journalists report as a single topic” (Fishman). The suicides at NYU are all listed under the same category, although each story is different. The causes of the suicides vary – one was linked to drugs, another was having problems with her boyfriend – yet they are all grouped together into the category of “NYU suicides.” This grouping makes it easy to use the collection of problems as a criticism of the school for being too stressful, or not having a good enough prevention strategy. Looking at each aspect of the coverage on these stories reveals the progression of a crime theme on suicides at NYU, into a full-blown crime wave.
The “rash of suicides” starts in 2003, when two students jumped to their deaths in Bobst library. This prompted the barriers to be set up in the library. All the articles since then have used words such as “unsettling,” “tragic,” and “disturbing.” These articles frame the suicides as something that, as Fishman puts it, “can be remarked upon at the corner grocery store” (Fishman). They create a theme: suicides in a prestigious college.
The articles present the suicides in a very similar way – the very first sentence states that there has been a suicide, alludes to the reactions of the people and students around the victim, and provides some background on the students. The manner in which the articles introduce the suicide automatically sensationalizes them. The articles appear to be geared towards the highest shock impact. There is always mention of the age, as well as mention of the previous suicides. This creates the sense that each suicide that occurs in NYU is not an isolated incident, and makes the stories sound almost like an “epidemic,” consequentially creating a crime theme. The suicides at NYU are referred to as a topic, not as separate incidents, and there are many articles that link back to this theme. This allows journalists to write about the suicides as they are occurring, or to refer back to them as a means of making commentary about stress in youth, college suicides, NYU suicide prevention, and many other things that fall under the umbrella of this theme. “Some crimes are related to others, making it possible for groups of news stories to be placed near each other” (Fishman).
An article in the Hartford Courant in 2004 takes the shock value to a higher level, thus becoming an excellent sample of the portrayal of the NYU suicides in printed media: the first 4 paragraphs present NYU as a school with much to be proud of. The article gives a sense of everything being peachy, even mentioning that the Princeton Review named NYU “No. 1 ‘dream college’ in the United States” (Buck) You can almost hear the birds chirping happily. “But then,” the article continues, “the students started jumping” (Buck). This is typical of the way the NYU suicides are written about in newspapers. The school is described as being great in all other areas. Except, of course, the fact that its students seem to be jumping off its roofs by the handful.
NYU has over 21,000 undergraduate students and over 16,000 graduate students, (collegeboard). Every year, suicide takes about 1,100 lives on college campuses around the US (National Mental Health Association [NMHA] & The Jed Foundation [JED], 2002). The average age group of college students has the highest suicide rates in the country, regardless of whether they go to college or where they are. After considering this information, the number of suicides at NYU doesn’t seem as staggering anymore. However, reading article after article about the amount of suicides that have occurred in NYU every year makes it seem like there have been a lot more than there actually have.
The people who commit suicide are also talked about in a specific way in many of these articles. Since the topic is NYU students, they are automatically placed high on the social ladder. They are also young, which is always stressed in all the articles. This adds more shock to already tragic stories. A quote from one of the students’ friends states that “We were freshmen and this was supposed to be a new beginning” (Burke).
The students are also referred to as being successful, friendly, appearing fine on the surface, but possibly stressed out and troubled inside. The articles include quotes from friends and peers. “Mr. Bohler seemed social and friendly and, like other students, he liked to go out and explore the city,” stated one girl about the second Bobst library suicide (Lipton). Another suicide in 2004 prompted the comment that the student was a” brilliant student who surely would have been a successful filmmaker” (KRT Campus).
All the students were apparently innocent and their suicides were “shocking” and “surprising,” even though after the fact, it turns out that many of them had reached out to someone, telling them that they were stressed out or couldn’t handle things anymore. Even when there is evidence that drugs were involved, there is very little emphasis on this. When one of the suicides was actually ruled an accident induced by drugs, the articles that followed still referred to it as a suicide, and still included it in the “suicide count.” Justin Baer and William J. Chambliss list this as one of the ways crime reporting can be used to tell the story that you want tell: “It matters not if the next day the coroner says it was suicide or the prosecutor determines that it was justifiable homicide or accidental death” (Baer). Despite the fact that the death was ruled accidental, it is still considered a suicide for the purpose of the newspapers referring back to it.
This pushes the topic from being a mere crime theme, to a crime wave. Fishman states that in order for a crime theme to grow into a wave, “there must be a continuous supply of crime incidents that can be seen as instances of a theme” (Fishman). In order to make sure of this, even suicides that are ruled as accidents later on are still counted as a part of the wave.
Aside from the many articles that speak on the suicides in NYU – “Second Suicide Leap…!”, “Sixths Student in year commits suicide!” – there are also a number of articles criticizing NYU and its handling of the suicides. NYU’s putting up barriers in the library and restricting access to the dormitory balconies was met with harsh words. There are numerous articles that state this won’t solve anything. “Enforcing this policy in the name of suicide prevention seems more like a face-saving way for N.Y.U. to ensure that students don’t end their lives on N.Y.U.’s campus, rather than a way to reach out to suicidal students and offer them help and guidance,” stated one editorial in the Washington Square News in 2005 (Arenson). Another article from that year calls NYU “Jump-Plagued” (Katz).
These articles bring to question NYU’s methods of prevention. They state that NYU should be reaching out to its students and to the core of the problem – depression and stress, as opposed to shutting down balconies and putting up barriers. This makes NYU seem like it takes bad care of its students, and somehow makes it seem like these students’ suicides are entirely the fault of the school for not taking action.
Not only does this make the school look bad, but it also brings NYC into question. Generalizations about NYU as a university are applied, in turn, to the city. Many non-New Yorkers see NYC as being a scary and dangerous place. The suicides reinforce this view. After the second suicide in 2003, an article quotes a mother as saying ”New York City in the first place gives me pause…. So this gives me an additional moment of pause” (Lipton). This brings the dangers of NYC into the picture, even though the suicides are not a direct result of living in NYC. They are not a criminal activity caused by someone outside of yourself.
The next step is connecting the suicides at NYU to other colleges across the country. An article by Sam Edelstein in the Daily Orange (a Syracuse U. publication) talks about the dangers and questions brought on by the NYU suicides. Throughout the entire article, Edelstein states that Syracuse university has not had a large suicide rate, and that the suicide numbers have actually decreased in recent years. However, the NYU suicides appear to be creating a panic not among the students, but rather among the universities and colleges. Because NYU was presented in such a bad light for not preventing the suicides, other colleges are beginning to worry about how they would look if anything did happen. Edelstein mentions that unlike NYU, “If a threat of one does occur, though, Public Safety officers, along with the counseling center, are ready to help” (Edelstein). Instead of being worried about suicides, the school is more worried with contrasting itself from NYU in its suicide prevention methods. Thus, the theme of suicides in colleges in NYU has spread out into other colleges, and has become a means of speaking on social issues through the use of this theme.
Although the suicides in NYU are spread out over a number of years, the manner in which they are covered in printed media has all the characteristics of a crime theme, and even of a crime wave. The media jump at the opportunity to criticize aspects of society through what appears to be an epidemic of suicides at one of the “dreams schools” of the United States. In retrospect, everything seems so easy to prevent. However, the causes of all these problems at NYU differ case by case. The way in which they are grouped together help forget that fact. They are examined as a whole, including all the events in one theme.
The NYU suicides all received attention, and virtually every article follows the same template. There are articles that respond to the “epidemic,” and there are other colleges which contrast themselves from NYU, criticizing the school. Media influence the way people view certain issues, and the suicides at NYU are no exception.
Arenson, Karen W. After Suicides, N.Y.U. Will Limit Access to Balconies. New York
Times. March 30, 2005.
Baer, Justin, and Chambliss, J. William. Generating Fear: The Politics of Crime Reporting.
Crime, Law, and Social Change. Vol 27: 87 – 107, 1997.
Buck, Rinker. Student deaths mar NYU’s ascent to recognition as dream college. Chicago
Burke, Kerry and Grace, Melissa. NYU Fresh Dies in 15-Story Fall. Daily News.
September 23, 2007.
Edelstein, Sam. Recent suicides at NYU concern Syracuse community. April 14, 2004.
Fishman, Mark. Crime Waves as Ideology. Social Problems, Vol. 25, No. 5: 531-543, June
Lipton, Eric. Second Suicide Leap Leaves New York University Shaken. New York Times.
October 12, 2003.
Katz, Celeste. Jump-Plagued NYU Shuts Dorm Balconies. March 30, 2005. Daily News.
KRT Campus. NYU student’s suicide surprises. BG News. September 12, 2004.