Suicide in the media


Media IconMore than 100 international studies have been conducted looking at the link between media reporting of suicide and suicidal behaviour. A critical review, Suicide in the News and Information Media, was conducted in 2010 to inform the development of resources for media and other sectors engaged by the Mindframe National Media Initiative. The study was an update of an earlier critical review which examined how the media represents suicide and the impact of that representation on attitudes and behaviour in the community1.

There is strong support for the relationship between media reporting of suicide deaths and increases in completed and attempted suicide rates. These increases cannot be explained by suicides that may have occurred anyway, as they are not followed by commensurate decreases in rates2.

  • For example, a major 1995 study of coverage in Australian newspapers found that rates of male suicide increased following reports of suicide, with actual male suicides peaking on the third day after the story first appeared3.

The way in which suicide is reported appears to be particularly significant. While evidence for media reporting that can contribute to a reduction in rates is generally lacking, there are some isolated studies that suggest reporting that frames suicide as a tragic waste and an avoidable loss, and focuses on the devastating impact of the act on others, has been linked to reduced rates of suicide.

  • For example, a 1997 Australian study of reporting of Kurt Cobain’s suicide in a range of media found that rates of suicide among 15-24 year olds fell during the month following the reporting of Cobain’s death. Significantly, media coverage of Cobain’s death was highly critical of his decision to suicide4.

 

suicide news and info media 2010Suicide and the news and information media
A Critical Review
Jane Pirkis and Warwick Blood 2010

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Aspects of reporting contributing to risk

The review of international research indicated that imitation or ‘copycat’ suicide is more prevalent under certain circumstances.

  • Risk is related to the prominence of the coverage, with repeated coverage and prominent news items strongly associated with subsequent suicidal behaviour5, 6.
  • It is accentuated when the reader or viewer identified with the person as either someone that is similar to themselves7 or someone they admire such as a celebrity8, 9, 10, 11.
  • Certain subgroups in the population (e.g. young people; people experiencing a mental illness) may be particularly vulnerable12, 13.
  • Explicit descriptions of the method or location have been linked to increased rates of suicide by that specific method or at that specific location14, 15, 16, 17.

Newspapers

  • Higher rates of suicide have been reported during periods when suicide stories are run in newspapers. As noted above, in Australia, male suicide rates have been found to increase following the reporting of suicide18.
  • Higher rates of suicide have sometimes been recorded after celebrity suicides receive front page coverage. A US study (1984) and Austrian studies (2001, 2004) found suicide rates and attempts of suicide increased significantly in the month celebrity suicides were published19.
  • Higher rates of suicide by a particular method such as burning or poisoning have been found to follow the appearance of newspaper stories on a suicide by these methods20.
  • The number of subway suicides and suicide attempts in Vienna dropped after the introduction of media guidelines led to less frequent reporting of suicides in these locations21.

Television

  • Some studies have found that rates of suicide increase following television news reporting of suicide. For example, a 1982 American study found that the national suicide rate increased for a period of 10 days following a news story on suicide22.
  • Increases in the number of teenage suicides have also been recorded following news stories on suicide in international studies 23. Coverage of suicide of elderly people has also been linked to higher levels of suicide by older people 24.
  • Studies have also found a relationship between the method of suicide portrayed in a fictional film or television program, and increased rates of suicide using this method 25.

Mixed media

  • Several Australian studies have looked at the relationship between reporting of suicide across media and suicide rates. A Queensland study found a peak in suicide rates following extensive negative publicity about suicide in the psychiatric wards of a local general hospital26.
  • Conversely, suicide rates among young Australians aged 15-24 were significantly lower in the month following Kurt Cobain’s death when compared to corresponding months in previous years27.
  • In some instances, reporting of suicides in certain locations has led to safeguards being introduced in these places to prevent suicide.

Fictional portrayals

A literature review conducted in 2010 indicated that the portrayal of suicide in film and television drama was widespread, and depictions of the act becoming lengthier, more extensively modelled, and more likely to involve firearms had increased over time28. The findings also suggested the portrayal of suicide was becoming more romanticised, glorified and condoned, with young people being disproportionately represented in films with a suicide theme. This report is available to download here.

Australian reporting

Rather than restricting media coverage of suicide, Australian Research29Media Monitoring Project 2000/2001 – 2006/2007, has indicated that there has been a two-fold increase in the reporting of suicide since the dissemination of the Mindframe resources. Importantly, the study also indicates that media have integrated the guidelines into their reports, with an overall improvement in quality from 57% in 2001 to 75% in 2007, with an improvement across seven of the nine principles outlined within.

 

References

[1] Pirkis, J., & Blood, W. (2010). Suicide and the news and information media: A critical review. Barton, ACT: Commonwealth of Australia.

[2] World Health Organisation. (2008). Preventing suicide: A resource for media professionals. Geneva: World Health Organisation.

[3] Hassan, R. (1995). Effects of newspaper stories on the incidence of suicide in Australia: A research note. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 29(3), 480-483.

[4] Martin, G., & Koo, L. (1997). Celebrity suicide: Did the death of Kurt Cobain affect suicides in Australia? Archives of Suicide Research, 3(3), 187-198.

[5] Hassan, R. (1995). Op. Cit.

[6] Etzersdorfer, E., Voracek, M., & Sonneck, G. (2004). A dose response relationship between imitational suicides and newspaper distribution. Archives of Suicide Research, 8(2), 137-145.

[7] Stack S. (1990). Audience receptiveness, the media, and aged suicide, 1968-1980. Journal of Aging Studies, 4(2), 195-209.

[8] Wasserman, I. (1984). Imitation and suicide: A re-examination of the Werther effect. American Sociological Review, 49, 427-436.

[9] Cheng, A. T. A., Hawton, K., Lee, C. T. C., & Chen, T. H. H. (2007). The influence of media reporting of the suicide of a celebrity on suicide rates: A population-based study. International Journal of Epidemiology, 36(6), 1229-1234.

[10] Yip, P., Fu, K., Yang, B., Ip, C., Chan, C., Chen, E., Lee, D., Law, F., & Hawton, K. (2006). The effects of a celebrity suicide on suicide rates in Hong Kong. Journal of Affective Disorders, 93(1-3), 245-252.

[11] Stack, S. (2005). Suicide in the media: A quantitative review of studies based on non-fictional stories. Suicide and Life Threatening Behavior, 35(2),121-33.

[12] Phillips, D. P., & Carstensen, L. L. (1986). Clustering of teenage suicides after television news stories about suicide. New England Journal of Medicine,315, 685-689.

[13] Cheng et al. (2007). Op. Cit.

[14] Etzersdorfer, E., Voracek, M., & Sonneck, G. (2001). A dose-response relationship of imitational suicides with newspaper distribution. Aust N Z J Psychiatry, 35(2), 251.

[15] Etzersdorfer et al. (2004). Op. Cit.

[16] Phillips, D. P., & Carstensen, L. L. (1988). The effect of suicide stories on various demographic groups, 1968-85. Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior, 18, 100-114.

[17] Ashton, J. R., & Donnan, S. (1979). Suicide by burning: A current epidemic. British Medical Journal, 2(6193), 769-770.

[18] Hassan, R. (1995). Op. Cit.

[19] Wasserman, I. (1984). Op. Cit.

[20] Ashton, J. R., & Donnan, S. (1979). Op. Cit.

[21] Etzersdorfer, E., & Sonneck, G. (1998). Preventing suicide by influencing mass media reporting: The Viennese experience 1980-1996. Archives of Suicide Research, 4(1), 67-74.

[22] Bollen, K. A., & Philips, D. P. (1982). Imitative suicides: A national study of the effects of television news stories. American Sociological Review, 47(6), 802-809.

[23] Phillips, D.P., & Carstensen, L. L. (1986). Op. Cit.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Versey, M. J., Kamanyire, R., & Volans, G. N. (1999). Antifreeze poisonings give more insight into copycat behaviour [letter]. British Medical Journal, 319(7212), 1131.

[26] Cantor, C.H., Tucker, P.J., & Burnett, P. (1991). The media and suicide [letter]. Medical Journal of Australia, 155(2), 130-131.

[27] Martin, G., & Koo, L. (1997). Op. Cit.

[28] Blood, R.W., & Pirkis, J. (2010). Suicide and the entertainment media: A critical review. Canberra, ACT: Commonwealth of Australia. 

[29] Pirkis, J., Blood, R. W., Dare, A., & Holland, K. (2008). The Media Monitoring Project media reporting and portrayal of suicide and mental health and illness in Australia: Improvements, challenges and prospects. Barton, ACT: Commonwealth of Australia.