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Institute of Health and Wellbeing Early Career Researchers' Blog

Sensitivity and Sensationalism: Media Reporting of Suicide and the Science of Why it Matters.

  • Jun 03 / 2014
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Current Research

Sensitivity and Sensationalism: Media Reporting of Suicide and the Science of Why it Matters.

By Olivia Kirtley:

I am currently the IHAWKES roving reporter at Columbia University, New York City.  Just one of the many intriguing pieces of research to come out of Columbia Psychiatry recently, is a Lancet Psychiatry article by Professor Madelyn Gould and other colleagues from Dartmouth College and Tufts University, looking at how the reporting of suicide in newspapers may be involved in teenage suicide clusters.  Point clusters of suicides are when a higher than expected number of suicides occur within a shorter than average time period, e.g. a week or a year; and/or in a similar space, such as within an individual school, or town (Mesoudi, 2009).

Gould et al’s study looked at all suicide clusters that occurred in 13-20 year olds in the US, from 1988-1996, and matched them to other non-clustered suicides.  The researchers then examined newspapers that were published after the index cluster or non-cluster suicide from each area where suicides occurred, and searched for stories relating to suicide, e.g. a headline including “suicide” or another word/phrase suggesting a person had taken their own life.

Findings show that in areas where cluster suicides occurred, there were significantly more news stories published about suicide than in areas where the index suicide was not followed by another death.  These news stories were also more likely to be front-page news, give more details about the individual and the method of suicide and also to use sensationalist headlines containing the word suicide or the method used.  Crucially, subsequent suicide deaths were specifically associated with stories about suicidal individuals rather than with general stories that included suicide related content.  Whilst the findings from this study do not demonstrate that overly explicit and detailed news reporting about individuals who die by suicide causes subsequent suicides, it does show an association.  The authors urge caution, however, as suicide is complex and usually involves many different factors, of which exposure to news stories may only be one.

Indeed, not all suicides are reported in the media.  What is it about one suicide relative to another that makes it newsworthy? Another recent study by Machlin, Pirkis and Spittal (2013) from the University of Melbourne, investigated the characteristics of suicides that were reported in the press and whether or not these suicides had specific features which may have made them more likely to hit the headlines.  They looked at data on suicides collected by the National Coroners Information System and also radio, TV and newspaper reports that included the word suicide which occurred from 2006-2007.  Suicides reported in the media were significantly more likely to be those of younger people (29 years or younger), to involve violent methods (e.g.,firearms) or to occur in an institutional setting (e.g., a hospital).  In addition to potentially leading to copycat suicides, sensationalist reporting of suicides in the media can also affect how the public understands suicide, maybe leading to the idea that particular groups of people are the only ones at risk of suicide.

This research highlights the critical importance of sensitively reporting suicide in the media and the crucial role the media has to play in suicide prevention.  There are both national and international guidelines for media reporting of suicide, including from from the Samaritans in the UK and the International Association for Suicide Prevention and World Health Organization internationally.  The guidelines advise against giving detailed descriptions of the method that a person has used to kill themselves or the location of the death, as this could provide a “how to guide” for someone who is vulnerable and considering ending their life.  The media guidelines for suicide reporting are supported by a wealth of scientific evidence and are intended not as bureaucratic red tape or media censorship, but quite simply, to save lives.

References:

Gould, M. S., Kleinman, M. H., Lake, A. M., Forman, J., & Bassett Midle, J. (2014). Newspaper coverage of suicide and initiation of suicide clusters in teenagers in the USA, 1988—96: a retrospective, population-based, case-control study. Lancet Psychiatry. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1016/S2215-0366(14)70225-1

International Association of Suicide Prevention & World Health Organization.  (2008). Preventing Suicide: A Guide for Media Professionals.  Retrieved from http://www.who.int/mental_health/prevention/suicide/resource_media.pdf

Machlin, A., Pirkis, J., & Spittal, M. J. (2013). Which Suicides Are Reported in the Media – and What Makes Them “Newsworthy”? Crisis, 34(5), 305–313. doi:10.1027/0227-5910/a000177

Mesoudi, A. (2009). The Cultural Dynamics of Copycat Suicide. PLoS ONE, 4(9), e7252. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0007252

Samaritans. (2014). Media Guidelines for the Reporting of Suicide.  Retrieved from http://www.samaritans.org/media-centre/media-guidelines-reporting-suicide

 

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