Are you a reporter who is working on a story related to suicide? If so, you may want to be aware of a phenomenon called "media-related suicide contagion."
According to numerous research studies, prominent media stories about suicide are associated with a significant increase in suicide attempts within the media outlet's coverage area. Adolescents and young adults seem to be especially susceptible to suicide contagion.
In order to help reporters and community officials learn about this problem and minimize the risks, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the American Association of Suicidology have endorsed a set of recommendations to consider when reporting about suicide. These recommendations include background information as well as examples of media reports that are more likely or less likely to promote suicide contagion.
Suicide is never the result of a single factor or event, but rather results from a complex interaction of many factors and usually involves a history of psychosocial problems. Public officials and the media should carefully explain that the final precipitating event was not the only cause of a given suicide. Most persons who have committed suicide have had a history of problems that may not have been acknowledged during the acute aftermath of the suicide. Cataloguing the problems that could have played a causative role in a suicide is not necessary, but acknowledgment of these problems is recommended.
Repetitive and ongoing coverage, or prominent coverage, of a suicide tends to promote and maintain a preoccupation with suicide among at-risk persons, especially among persons 15-24 years of age. This preoccupation appears to be associated with suicide contagion. Information presented to the media should include the association between such coverage and the potential for suicide contagion. Public officials and media representatives should discuss alternative approaches for coverage of newsworthy suicide stories.
By its nature, news coverage of a suicidal event tends to heighten the general public's preoccupation with suicide. This reaction is also believed to be associated with contagion and the development of suicide clusters. Public officials can help minimize sensationalism by limiting, as much as possible, morbid details in their public discussions of suicide. News media professionals should attempt to decrease the prominence of the news report and avoid the use of dramatic photographs related to the suicide (e.g., photographs of the funeral, the deceased person's bedroom, and the site of the suicide).
Describing technical details about the method of suicide is undesirable. For example, reporting that a person died from carbon monoxide poisoning may not be harmful; however, providing details of the mechanism and procedures used to complete the suicide may facilitate imitation of the suicidal behavior by other at-risk persons.
Suicide is usually a rare act of a troubled or depressed person. Presentation of suicide as a means of coping with personal problems (e.g., the breakup of a relationship or retaliation against parental discipline) may suggest suicide as a potential coping mechanism to at-risk persons. Although such factors often seem to trigger a suicidal act, other psychopathological problems are almost always involved. If suicide is presented as an effective means for accomplishing specific ends, it may be perceived by a potentially suicidal person as an attractive solution.
News coverage is less likely to contribute to suicide contagion when reports of community expressions of grief (e.g., public eulogies, flying flags at half-mast, and erecting permanent public memorials) are minimized. Such actions may contribute to suicide contagion by suggesting to susceptible persons that society is honoring the suicidal behavior of the deceased person, rather than mourning the person's death.
Empathy for family and friends often leads to a focus on reporting the positive aspects of a suicide completer's life. For example, friends or teachers may be quoted as saying the deceased person "was a great kid" or "had a bright future," and they avoid mentioning the troubles and problems that the deceased person experienced. As a result, statements venerating the deceased person are often reported in the news. However, if the suicide completer's problems are not acknowledged in the presence of these laudatory statements, suicidal behavior may appear attractive to other at-risk persons -- especially those who rarely receive positive reinforcement for desirable behaviors.
In addition to these guidelines, The American Association of Suicidology recommends that media reports about suicide include potential warning signs, as well as information on community resources (such as 2-1-1 Crisis Hotline ) for those who may be suicidal or who know people who are.
If you have further questions, please contact our Director at 561-533-1099. Professional staff members from 2-1-1 are available to meet with reporters to provide additional information about suicide and the services available in our community.
References: Centers for Disease Control. Programs for the prevention of suicide among adolescents and young adults; and suicide contagion and the reporting of suicide: Recommendations from a national workshop. MMWR 1994; 43 (No. RR-6).; American Association of Suicidology CDC-AAS Media Guidelines.