Celeb suicides: How should the media cover them?

Is there a right or wrong way for the media to cover celeb suicides?
Is there a right or wrong way for the media to cover celeb suicides?

Suicide contagion. That’s the term experts have given a phenomenon showing that people who are exposed to suicide – either through someone they know or the media – are more likely to commit suicide themselves.

TIME reported on a new paper, published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, on 30 July 2018 that says, “Some specific journalistic practices – such as including lots of details about a death by suicide, or glamorising these incidents – may make suicide contagion worse.”

However, Dr Ayal Schaffer, a psychiatry professor at the University of Toronto and a co-author of the new study, said, “We’re not saying reporting on suicide is bad. Our goal is not to blame journalists; it’s not to tell journalists how to do their jobs. But it is to provide a pretty strong research base to support specific guidelines about how reporting on suicide should be done.”

The study results

Researchers analysed articles about suicide that appeared in 13 major publications in the Toronto media market. The study also included media coverage from the New York Times, which has a high circulation rate in Toronto.

Almost 17 000 articles mentioned suicide; 6 367 articles had a strong focus on suicide and were published between 2011 and 2014. During that time, about 950 people in Toronto committed suicide. The study found that "exposure to media reporting on suicide can lead to suicide contagion and, in some circumstances, may also lead to help-seeking behaviour. There is limited evidence for which specific characteristics of media reports mediate these phenomena."

The researchers "used multivariable logistic regression to determine whether specific article characteristics were associated with increases or decreases in suicide deaths in the seven days after publication, compared with a control window." 

What they found was shocking. TIME reported that "stories about celebrity suicides, headlines that included information about how a suicide was completed and statements that made suicide seem inevitable were all correlated with suicide contagion".

Other research supports this theory – four months after Robin Williams committed suicide in 2014, a study, published in PLOS ONE, revealed a 10% increase in suicides across the US.

Responsible reporting

Andrew Seaman says he has seen improvements in the way these types of stories are covered. He told TIME, "This points to an evolving understanding that, while a journalist’s first responsibility is reporting the facts, certain issues, such as suicide and school shootings, require more nuanced news judgment than others, particularly given the body of research supporting theories like suicide contagion." Seaman is the ethics committee chair at the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) and a former health reporter.

Seaman believes that suicide reporting should always be based on one of SPJ's guiding principles: To minimise harm. 

pull quote, suicide, mental health, health

“You really have to think of the story and say, ‘What are my responsibilities here, and where do they end?'” he said. “Do I really need to include the method? Do I need to go into detail here? In most cases, I don’t think you have to.”

Dr Schaffer agrees. He says that journalists should leave out details about how a death occurred and avoid speculation on the causes. Unfortunately, the more vivid and detailed an account of death is, particularly suicide, the more it contributes towards the suicide contagion phenomenon, he says.

“The more someone is able, in a very specific way, to get connected to this story – and if they can see themselves in that person or wanting to be that person or admiring that person – that story becomes a very powerful driver to their behaviour,” said Dr Schaffer. 

Adding 'messages of hope'

The framing of a story is just as important, Dr Mark Sinyor, the new study’s lead investigator and a psychiatrist at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, told TIME in an email. He said, “Ideally, journalists would not treat suicide as an entertainment story but as what it truly is: A health story. Suicide invariably arises from treatable mental disorders. Most people who experience suicidal crises find paths to resilience, and there is no reason anyone has to die by suicide.”

Dr David Brent, who is a professor of psychiatry and the Endowed Chair in Suicide Studies at the University of Pittsburgh and not affiliated with the research, echoes this. He told Reuters, "Stories can have a positive effect if they shed light on the role of mental health issues. And certainly you can say something about the devastating effect the suicide has on people."

Dr Schaffer says it's important to add "messages of hope" to articles about mental health, as this can potentially help prevent suicide. He suggests referring to people who have survived a suicide attempt.

“Part of the message of hope is, at a macro level, the sense that we can actually do something, because we need to fight against this sense that there’s hopelessness and helplessness associated with suicide. We know that there are lots of things we can do that can actually reduce the rates of suicide – not to zero, but to much less than it is.”

Suicide warning signs

Suicide warning signs can be either subtle or obvious. Here are some of the signs you should take note of:

  • Talking about suicide, dying or self-harm
  • Being preoccupied with death, for example, writing poems or stories about death
  • Having no hope for the future, feeling trapped and hopeless
  • Feelings of worthlessness, self-hatred, guilt, shame or saying they feel like a burden
  • Getting their affairs in order by drawing up a will or giving away valued possessions
  • Withdrawing from friends and family; no longer socialising because they prefer to be alone
  • Making unexpected visits or calls to friends and family, and saying goodbye
  • If a person has a sudden sense of calm and happiness after going through an extremely bad depressive episode, it could mean they have decided to attempt suicide.

Do you need help?

For a suicidal emergency call the South African Depression and Anxiety Group on 0800 567 567. Their 24-hour helpline is 0800 12 13 14. 

Image credit: iStock

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