Role of Media Coverage in Suicide Outbreaks
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) defines a suicide cluster as “multiple deaths by suicide that occur within a defined geographical area and fall within an accelerated time.” In the June 2014 issue of the Lancet, epidemiologist and suicide expert Madelyn Gould, PhD, PMH, professor of epidemiology in Columbia’s Department of Psychiatry, published her latest findings on the relationship between newspaper coverage of suicides and suicide clusters in teenagers in the United States.
The study results showed an association between detailed newspaper reports of the initial suicide in each cluster—including prominently placed headlines and a description of the method used—and an increase in the number of suicides following the news coverage. Though, of course, Dr. Gould and her co-investigators do not suggest that the news reports were solely responsible for subsequent suicides, they argue that the study results are a call to action for both mental health professionals and media professionals who, together, may help stem this public health crisis.
Experts have long suspected the risks inherent in reporting a sensitive and sensational issue like a suicide. In 1994, Dr. Gould was one of a number of experts the CDC tapped to develop recommendations for media coverage of suicide.
Below are some of the CDC’s recommendations on news reporting practices that should be avoided, as they may promote suicide contagion.
- Presenting simplistic explanations for suicide.
Suicide is never the result of a single factor or event, but rather results from a complex interaction of many factors and usually involves a history of psychosocial problems. Public officials and the media should carefully explain that the final precipitating event was not the only cause of a given suicide. Most persons who have committed suicide have had a history of problems that may not have been acknowledged during the acute aftermath of the suicide. Cataloging the problems that might have played a causative role in a suicide is not necessary, but acknowledgment of these problems is recommended.
- Reporting "how-to" descriptions of suicide.
Describing technical details about the method of suicide is undesirable. For example, reporting that a person died from carbon monoxide poisoning may not be harmful; however, providing details of the mechanism and procedures used to complete the suicide may facilitate imitation of the suicidal behavior by other at-risk persons.
- Glorifying suicide or persons who commit suicide.
News coverage is less likely to contribute to suicide contagion when reports of community expressions of grief (e.g., public eulogies, flying flags at half-mast, and erecting permanent public memorials) are minimized. Such actions may contribute to suicide contagion by suggesting to susceptible persons that society is honoring the suicidal behavior of the deceased person, rather than mourning the person's death.
- Focusing on the suicide completer's positive characteristics.
Empathy for family and friends often leads to a focus on reporting the positive aspects of a suicide completer's life. For example, friends or teachers may be quoted as saying the deceased person "was a great kid" or "had a bright future," and they avoid mentioning the troubles and problems that the deceased person experienced. As a result, statements venerating the deceased person are often reported in the news. However, if the suicide completer's problems are not acknowledged along with these laudatory statements, suicidal behavior may appear attractive to other at-risk persons—especially those who rarely receive positive reinforcement for desirable behaviors.
For further guidance on suicide coverage, visit www.reportingonsuicide.org.