Journalists and news organizations play a critical role in educating the public about health. News coverage of HIV/AIDS, heart disease, diabetes, obesity, cancer, and the flu makes a difference in people’s lives and influences the care they receive. Similarly, reports about suicide inform the public about likely causes, common warning signs and risk factors, trends in suicide rates, and successful prevention efforts. At times, reporting on suicide can prove harmful, spreading misinformation or inadvertently contributing to suicide contagion.
Also known as copycat suicide, suicide contagion is a phenomenon in which additional, often similar suicides take place following the report of a suicide, presumably inspired by reporting on the original suicide.
A group of international suicide prevention organizations, public health organizations, and internet safety experts have collaborated with working journalists, news organizations, and schools of journalism to develop a set of Recommendations for Reporting on Suicide.
Two Viennese studies on suicide contagion* found that less extensive and dramatic media coverage of subway-related suicides resulted in fewer suicide deaths following the reported suicides. In fact, subway suicides and non-fatal attempts actually dropped by 80 percent in the six months following initiation of a campaign to encourage safe media reporting. The total number of suicides also declined.
*Sonneck, G., Etzersdorfer, E., & Nagel-Kuess, S. (1994). Imitative suicide on the Viennese subway. Social Science and Medicine, 38, 453–457.
*Etzersdorfer, E. & Sonneck, G., (1998). Preventing Suicide by influencing mass-media reporting. The Viennese experience 1980-1996. Archives of Suicide Research, 4, 67–74.
The following news reports utilize safe media reporting strategies that we believe exemplify coverage that is informative, sensitive, and potentially preventative:
- "Suicide Rate Slowly Rising"–Philadelphia Inquirer
- "Journalists at Tampa TV Station Use Skill, Care, Expertise to Cover Child’s Suicide"–Poynter (St. Petersburg, FL)
- "Temperance, Common Sense Required with Suicide Coverage"–Napa Valley Register
- "People Who Attempted Suicide as Youths Trace Their Recovery"–Toronto Star
- "Community Stunned to Learn Restaurateur and Philanthropist Committed Suicide"–Denver Post
- "Bullying And Suicide: The Dangerous Mistake We Make"–Huffington Post
To speak with experts on suicide prevention, or for more information on safe reporting recommendations, please contact [email protected] or (212) 363-3500 Ext. 2024.