How the news media impacts suicide trends: Research roundup

Journalists generally are discouraged from reporting on suicide, and many news agencies have formal or informal policies against it. They make exceptions, however, when prominent figures such as celebrities or community leaders take their own lives or when a rash of suicides erupts among a specific group of people – for example, the reported spate of suicides among gay Mormon youth in early 2016. The media also make exceptions in the tragic case of a murder-suicide, when one or more people are killed and the perpetrator causes his or her own death, and for legislative debates about policies related to physician- assisted suicide.

Mental health experts have criticized the media for its general portrayal of suicide and failure to give adequate attention to mental health issues more broadly. Research studies worldwide have found that certain kinds of news coverage can increase the likelihood that someone will commit suicide, which was the second-leading cause of death globally among individuals ages 15 to 29 in 2012. Because of this, a number of organizations have launched information campaigns aimed at encouraging journalists to be more careful with the details they release and the way in which they present stories about suicide. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention is among the groups that offer guidance on how to report on suicide and suicide-related issues. It warns against sensational headlines, for example, and revealing information such as the location of a suicide and the method used in hopes of averting suicide contagion, or “copycat” suicides. The World Health Organization (WHO) has produced “Preventing Suicide: A Resource for Media Professionals,” which offers best practices for covering what has become a serious and international public health problem. Meanwhile, the Poynter Institute offers journalists a free, self-directed course designed to help them better understand mental health conditions and report on suicide.

Below is a collection of research that investigates the media’s impact on suicide. Journalists writing about such topics in the United States can get a variety of related data and statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The WHO offers an international perspective. Another helpful resource is the U.S. National Library of Medicine, which offers a broad overview of information about mental illness and disorders, including emerging trends and links to new academic journal articles.



Media impact and suicide tendencies


Changes in Suicide Rates Following Media Reports on Celebrity Suicide: A Meta-Analysis
Niederkrotenthaler, Thomas; et al. Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, 2012. doi: 10.1136/jech-2011-200707.

Conclusion: “Reports on celebrity suicide are associated with increases in suicides. Study region and celebrity type appear to have an impact on the effect size.”


Suicide and the Media
Gould, Madelyn S. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 2006, Vol. 932. doi: 10.1111/j.1749-6632.2001.tb05807.

Abstract: “Evidence continues to amass on the significant impact of media coverage on suicide. The research literature on the impact of news reports of nonfictional suicides as well as fictional suicide stories is reviewed in order to determine the nature and scope of the influence of the mass media on suicide. The current review, building upon earlier reviews, is limited to English language publications or English translations of articles and/or abstracts. The interactive factors that may moderate the impact of media stories are also reviewed. Such interactive factors include characteristics of the stories (agent), individuals’ attributes (host), and social context of the stories (environment). Recommendations are presented for the reporting of suicide stories, which may minimize the risk of imitative suicides. The media’s positive role in educating the public about risks for suicide and shaping attitudes about suicide is emphasized. In summary, the existence of suicide contagion no longer needs to be questioned. We should refocus our research efforts on identifying which particular story components promote contagion under which circumstances and which components are useful for preventive programming.”


Suicide in the Media: A Quantitative Review of Studies Based on Nonfictional Stories
Stack, S. Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior, 2005, Vol. 35. doi: 10.1521/suli.

Abstract: “Research on the effect of suicide stories in the media on suicide in the real world has been marked by much debate and inconsistent findings. Recent narrative reviews have suggested that research based on nonfictional models is more apt to uncover imitative effects than research based on fictional models. There is, however, substantial variation in media effects within the research restricted to nonfictional accounts of suicide. The present analysis provides some explanations of the variation in findings in the work on nonfictional media. Logistic regression techniques applied to 419 findings from 55 studies determined that: (1) studies measuring the presence of either an entertainment or political celebrity were 5.27 times more likely to find a copycat effect, (2) studies focusing on stories that stressed negative definitions of suicide were 99% less likely to report a copycat effect, (3) research based on television stories (which receive less coverage than print stories) were 79% less likely to find a copycat effect, and (4) studies focusing on female suicide were 4.89 times more likely to report a copycat effect than other studies. The full logistic regression model correctly classified 77.3% of the findings from the 55 studies. Methodological differences among studies are associated with discrepancies in their results.”


Newspaper Reporting and the Emergence of Charcoal Burning Suicide in Taiwan: A Mixed Methods Approach

Chen, Ting-Yeh; et al. Journal of Affective Disorders, 2016. doi:10.1016/j.jad.2015.12.041.

Results: “During the period when charcoal burning suicide increased rapidly, the number of reports per suicide was considerably higher than during the early stage (30.7% vs. 10.3%). Detailed reporting of this new method was associated with a post-reporting increase in suicides using the method. Qualitative analysis of news items revealed that the content of reports of suicide by charcoal burning changed gradually; in the early stages of the epidemic (1999-2000) there was convergence in the terminology used to report charcoal burning deaths, later reports gave detailed descriptions of the setting in which the death occurred (2001) and finally the method was glamourized and widely publicized (2001 to 2002).”


Keywords: charcoal burning, media influence, violence, injury, mental health, mass media, mass shooting