Suicide is a sensitive topic, but most people don’t realize just how sensitive it is to the media. The way a suicide is reported can cause more than just sad feelings — it can sometimes cause more suicides.
Most newspapers have guidelines on how a suicide is covered. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institute of Mental Health and other organizations created some guidelines for media coverage of suicides.
According to the guidelines, after measures were taken in Vienna to control the media’s reporting techniques in regard to suicides of those who jumped in front of subway trains, “subway suicides and non-fatal attempts dropped by more than 80 percent.” The number of suicides dropped overall. This is most likely because of the media’s focus on changing its suicide coverage.
Some tips the report gave are to avoid romanticizing suicide, exclude how the act was done, investigate the causes of the suicide and avoid including the word “suicide” in the headlines.
The main problem comes when a celebrity commits suicide, because the media almost feels obligated to overreport it. For example, a study was completed on media coverage on a celebrity’s suicide and the number of suicides that followed. In this case, there was a male TV celebrity who committed suicide in Taiwan. During the 4 weeks after the suicide and media coverage, there was a definite increase in suicides, especially in men and by the same suicide method.
This promotes the fact that there is a modeling effect and that readers/views/users may imitate a celebrity death when there is extensive coverage.
However, there is some evidence to the contrary. There was a study on Kurt Cobain and how his suicide affected suicide rates for youth in Australia. Apparently, suicide rates in youth in 2004 decreased instead of increased. Maybe this is because he was more popular in the United States? Anyway, it appears there is not always the imitation suicide effect.
Basically, as newspapers, Web sites, etcetera are main sources of information, these news outlets need to be more careful in coverage of sensitive subjects. This will benefit all.