On Reporting Suicide – and why media guidelines matter

Whilst some areas of the media may choose to ignore the advice of charities when reporting suicide, evidence suggests using media guidelines can save lives.

© Copyright David Hawgood and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence
© Copyright David Hawgood and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Over the years there have been many studies into how irresponsible reporting can have an impact on suicide rates, so much so that most news organizations are now in agreement that there is a clear link between the two.

But whilst the majority has acknowledged this there are some within the industry, and the expanded blogosphere, who have failed in the past to heed the advice of mental health charities when reporting incidents of suicide.

Dating as far back as the release of Goethe’s ‘The Sorrows of Young Werther’, in 1774, individuals have always been suspicious of a correlation between representations of suicide in the media and cultural trends, i.e. copycat behaviour. In this particular example, following the book’s release, individuals strived to emulate the central character’s suicide, leading to a spike in similar activity. This became known as “The Werther Effect” and can be observed elsewhere in the media, most prominently in the reporting of suicide.

One example of this is a report of an inquest into self-poisoning in 1995. In this case, the reporting of the incident by several publications was believed by many to have influenced an increase in the number of intentional antifreeze poisonings reported to the British National Poisons Information Service. The reporting of this particular incident is believed to have been partially to blame for the increase because it highlighted the method of suicide in extensive detail.

The above is not an isolated case however; there are several other instances that support this argument. Another example that is believed to have influenced incidents of copycat behaviour is an article that was published in Hong Kong that gave details of a person’s suicide by burning charcoal in a confined space. Following this article there was a dramatic increase in the number of individuals using this method, the figure having risen from 0% to 10% over three years, with many blaming the media for how they reported this incident.

As mentioned before there are many who have noticed this correlation and are actively working to prevent such cases. Samaritans Chief Executive Catherine Johnstone is one of these. In 2010 she issued a strong warning to the press about the implications of reporting suicide, offering advice also to help journalists prevent incidents of copycat behaviour; most of which can now be viewed online on the Samaritans’ website.

Amongst this advice they argue that journalists should abstain from using ‘explicit or technical details’, whilst also avoiding brushing over the realities of suicide. Other advice also suggests that journalists should link the reader to relevant support and information to help them cope with the story. This is all in order so that they can help prevent any further cases from occurring in the future as a direct result of reporting the incident.

Evidence to suggest this approach works can be seen displayed on several different occasions. One high profile example of this was in 1994, following Kurt Cobain’s suicide. In many of the reports following the suicide of Kurt Cobain journalists purposely differentiated between his achievements in life and his untimely death, exploring the realities of suicide. In addition, they also discussed risk factors, and offered support to those experiencing suicidal feelings.

Many have argued that these measures were key in explaining why suicide rates did not increase in his hometown of Seattle following his death, even in spite of his influence and the high profile nature of his death.

Another key example that highlights the positive effect the media can have on reducing copycat behaviour is displayed by studies performed in both Toronto and Vienna, showing the impact of voluntary restrictions placed on the media when reporting railway suicides. The results of these studies showed that by applying certain restrictions to the reporting of railway suicides this led to a decrease in the number of suicides by the same method, the figure falling by an astounding 75%.

All of the above suggests that by adopting these measures we can prevent cases of copycat behaviour from occurring, or at least limit their frequency. This, as outlined above, can be achieved by investing more time, effort, and sensitivity into the way we report suicide, and also by offering help to those who may be distressed by the content of the reports.

If you suspect that yourself, or a loved one, is suffering from depression, you can contact Samaritans on 08457 90 90 90 (UK) or visit their website here for guidance and support.

By Jack Yarwood

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