Reporting on Suicides

Talking about suicide does not cause suicides

Certain forms of reporting these tragic events have been shown to help prevent suicides. Communicating news of suicide deaths and reporting on or recommending suicide intervention and prevention measures is a critical function, which only the media can fulfill. The presentation of facts about a suicide and the language used to convey those facts within news coverage can diminish the atmosphere of rumor and, moreover, the possibility of increased suicidal behavior.

"Fine-tuning" such stories along the parameters outlined below can actually promote the safety of individuals at-risk:

  • Report in a non-sensationalized, non-romanticized, non-graphic fashion the news of a suicide or series of suicides. Establish a foundation that avoids placing blame on events, friends, and relatives, but acknowledges the grief process for the community.
  • Provide concise factual information that increases public awareness of risk factors, warning signs, and possible actions to help a suicidal person. In most cases, there are warning signs of an impending suicide. Yet, at the time of a suicide, those closest to the victim did not know about, or may not have seen, those warning signs. Finding and focusing on these warning signs can help to increase general public awareness of how to recognize and respond to help a suicidal person. 
  • Describe what is being done to promote safety in the aftermath of a suicide. Local crisis intervention activities usually follow a suicide. Publicizing the significant efforts underway by schools and community organizations give options for help to community members affected by the tragedy.
  • List available community resources for individuals at-risk. Information on available resources, including hotline number(s) and other local resources, can assist individuals at-risk, their friends and family members, learn where to get help with their concerns. Maine’s Statewide Crisis Hotline, 888-568-1112, is an appropriate resource in any story related to suicide and can be included as a resource.
  • Periodically feature stories about people who have made it through difficult situations.  Stories that present positive ways of coping with problems aid in the prevention of further suicide attempts. For vulnerable individuals, these stories can provide positive role models and alternative solutions to ending one’s life.

What research has shown about the Copycat Effect

Findings from numerous American and international studies during the last thirty years indicate the likelihood of copycat suicides are increased by certain types of reporting. The classic cases are the increase in the national suicide rate by 17% after Marilyn Monroe died by suicide and the international copycat suicides after Kurt Cobain’s death. 

The increase in suicidal behavior, especially among youth, following prominent news coverage of a suicide comes about because the coverage falls outside certain parameters. Research shows that problems occur even with regard to the use of seemingly harmless phrases like “successful suicides” and “failed attempts.”  These tend to give the message that to kill oneself is a “success” and to try, but not die is a “failure.” Furthermore, publicizing graphic and repetitive representations of suicides (including the method used and how obtained), and glorifying the suicide victim appear to increase the actual numbers of suicide through the “copycat effect,” a well-researched form of behavior contagion.

The following reporting practices have been linked to increased suicidal behavior:

  • Providing sensational coverage of suicide. Graphic news coverage of a suicide can heighten a vulnerable person’s preoccupation with suicide. Reports that employ dramatic photographs related to the suicide (e.g., photographs of the funeral, the deceased person’s bedroom, and the site of the suicide), and detailed verbal imagery of the suicide scene become exacting models for other at-risk persons. Details about the method of suicide also may encourage imitation of the suicidal behavior among vulnerable persons.
  • Glorifying or romanticizing suicide or persons who die by suicide. Reports that idealize or romanticize someone who dies by suicide may encourage others to identify with the person. Exaggerated community expressions of grief (e.g., large public eulogies, flying flags at half-mast, and erecting permanent public memorials) cause inflated reinforcement of the suicide. 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.
  • Focusing only on the suicide victim’s positive characteristics. While statements praising the deceased as “a great kid” or “someone with a bright future” are important, acknowledgement that the deceased was experiencing problems or struggles can help to give a more accurate picture of the individual’s situation. When the deceased person’s problems are not acknowledged, suicidal behavior may be attractive to other at-risk persons, especially those who rarely receive positive reinforcement.
  • Presenting simple explanations for suicide. Suicide is seldom the result of a single event.  Rather, it is the rare act of a troubled person struggling with complex circumstances.  During the period immediately after a death by suicide, grieving family members and friends are stunned and may find a loved one’s death by suicide unexplainable. They may deny that there were warning signs or may place blame on one person or event. Presentation of suicide as a way of coping with personal problems (e.g., the break-up of a relationship or retaliation against parental discipline) may suggest suicide as a possible coping mechanism to other at-risk persons.
  • Engaging in repetitive or prominent reporting of suicide. Excessive coverage of a suicide tends to promote and maintain a preoccupation with suicide among at-risk persons, especially young people. Front-page coverage of a suicide and use of the word ‘suicide’ in a headline has been shown to increase copycat suicidal behaviors.

Sources: MMWR, Vol. 43/No. RR-6, “Suicide Contagion and the Reporting of Suicide: Recommendations from a National Workshop,” AFSP Media Guidelines, and The Copycat Effect (Loren Coleman, Simon and Schuster, 2004).