Media and Safe Reporting

From the World Health Organization

Media play a significant role in today's society by providing a very wide range of information in a variety of ways. They strongly influence community attitudes, beliefs and behavior, and play a vital role in politics, economics and social practice. Because of that influence media can also play an active role in the prevention of suicide.

Suicide is perhaps the most tragic way of ending one's life. The majority of people who consider suicide are ambivalent. They are not sure that they want to die. One of the many factors that may lead a vulnerable individual to suicide could be publicity about suicides in the media. How the media report on suicide cases can influence other suicides.

These resources seek to outline the impact of media reporting on suicide, indicate sources of reliable information, suggest how to report on suicide in both general and specific circumstances, and point to pitfalls to be avoided in reporting on suicide.

IMPACT OF MEDIA REPORTING ON SUICIDE

One of the earliest known associations between the media and suicide arose from Goethe's novel Die Leiden des jungen Werther (The Sorrows of Young Werther), published in 1774. In that work the hero shoots himself after an ill-fated love, and shortly after its publication there were many reports of young men using the same method to commit suicide. This resulted in a ban of the book in several places. Hence the term "Werther effect", used in the technical literature to designate imitation (or copycat) suicides.

Other studies of the media's role in suicide include a review going back to the last century in the United States. Another famous and recent case concerns the book Final Exit written by Derek Humphry: after the publication of this book, there was an increase in suicides in New York using the methods described. The publication of Suicide, mode d'emploi in France also led to an increase in the number of suicides. According to Philips and colleagues, the degree of publicity given to a suicide story is directly correlated with the number of subsequent suicides. Cases of suicide involving celebrities have had a particularly strong impact.

Television also influences suicidal behavior. Philips showed an increase in suicide up to 10 days after television news reports of cases of suicide. As in the printed media, highly publicized stories that appear in multiple programs on multiple channels seem to carry the greatest impact - all the more so if they involve celebrities. However, there are conflicting reports about the impact of fictional programs: some show no effect, while others cause an increase in suicidal behavior.

The association between stage plays or music and suicidal behavior has been poorly investigated and remains mainly anecdotal.

Imitation is the process by which one suicide exerts a modeling effect on subsequent suicides.

Clusters are a number of suicides that occur in close temporal and/or geographical proximity, with or without any direct link. Contagion is the process by which a given suicide facilitates the occurrence of a further suicide, regardless of the direct or indirect knowledge of the prior suicide.

More recently, the Internet has introduced a number of new issues. There are web sites that help a person with suicidal plans and others that try to prevent suicides. So far, no systematic studies have analyzed its impact on suicide.

Overall, there is enough evidence to suggest that some forms of non-fictional newspaper and television coverage of suicide are associated with a statistically significant excess of suicide; the impact appears to be strongest among young people. Nevertheless, the majority of suicides are not reported in the media; when the decision is taken to inform the public about a suicide, it usually involves a particular person, method or place. Suicide is often newsworthy and the media have the right to report it. However, the suicides most likely to attract the attention of the media are those that depart from usual patterns. In fact, it is striking that cases presented in the media are almost invariably atypical and uncommon, and to represent them as typical further perpetuates misinformation about suicide. Clinicians and researchers acknowledge that it is not news coverage of suicide per se, but certain types of news coverage, that increase suicidal behavior in vulnerable populations. Conversely, certain types of coverage may help to prevent imitation of the suicidal behavior. Nevertheless, there is always the possibility that publicity about suicide might make the idea of suicide seem "normal". Repeated and continual coverage of suicide tends to induce and promote suicidal preoccupations, particularly among adolescents and young adults.

SPAN USA developed an excellent guide for engaging the Media. Guide to Engaging the Media in Suicide Prevention. This material will assist the Community Advocate that is interested in helping to educate the media in responsible reporting. There is also guidelines and information that would be of great value to the media as they develop reporting of suicide and suicide prevention. 

The SPRC, Suicide Prevention Resource Center released an excellent one page document on Media and Safe Reporting, which you can download byclicking here