Reporting on Suicide: Recommendations for the Media
Most discussions of the media and suicide proceed from a concern about suicide contagion or "copycat suicides." There is evidence of a link between graphic, heroic, or romantic portrayals of suicide and subsequent suicidal behavior by vulnerable, high-risk individuals, youths or otherwise, who have been exposed to such coverage. However, there is more to the issue. There are the millions of people in the US and elsewhere who have lost a loved one to suicide. They have experienced the most traumatic type of loss and may spend many years or even decades trying to cope with it. They too stand to be hurt by inconsiderate treatments of suicide in the media. This page looks at the issue from the point of view of someone who has been affected by a suicide.
The Annenberg Public Policy Center, Washington, DC, issued Reporting on Suicide: Recommendations for the Media, in August, 2001. The Center is to be commended for the attention that it has given to media treatment of suicide. The report is clear and to the point. The guidelines are constructive, especially those regarding the terms and language used in reports.
However, the media still has much more to learn about suicide and those bereaved by suicide. Here are some specific comments on the report:
News Value of Individual Suicides: Suicide grievers might dispute the assertion that "suicides may be newsworthy." With very few exceptions, suicides should generally not be reported at all. Individual suicide reports are not the way to dispel misconceptions and stigma. These should be tackled head-on and need not be wrapped around a particular incident.
Mental Illness and Suicide: The report's focus on "significant underlying mental problems" as present in most suicides just feeds the stigma surrounding both suicide and mental illness. Neurological research has strongly linked suicide and suicidal behavior to neurochemical imbalances and other problems with neurophysiology. These findings are not referred to at all.
Relatives as Sources: Don't be skeptical of family members' thoughts about the cause, don't bother them at all. Let them mourn in peace. Yes, they are disoriented, in need of support, and looking for answers too. It would be better to follow-up with survivors well after their loss. Most do come to understand that suicide is complex and multi-causal.
The list of stories to consider covering is a good start. Here are some additional topics:
- Why do few of those who fail at a suicide attempt receive subsequent treatment? Look at poor funding of mental health services and restrictive HMO coverage
- De-romanticize suicide by disclosing the aftermath -- the guilt, the second-guessing, anxiety for the risk of other family members, and worst.
- Talk to employers who want someone who has lost a child, parent, spouse, sibling, or partner to suicide back at work in 3 days.
- Report that having gun raises suicide risk six-fold, that those who own a gun are 32 times more likely to suicide than those who do not, that almost 60% of suicides involve firearms.
- Look into why there are virtually no suicide prevention efforts targeting adult white males (with the exception of the various branches of the US military and the corrections sector) though they account for the majority of suicides.
Lastly there is a feature of the print media that is routinely and egregiously abusive on the subject of suicide. Cartoonists, editorial and otherwise, should be informed that there's nothing funny about suicide.
Overall the media can and should help everybody understand that suicide can and does happen in families just like theirs. The media may be, in many cases, part of the problem of suicide. It should be part of the solution. Responsible reporting supports suicide prevention and facilitates suicide postvention.
After a School Suicide: Dealing with the Media – Don’t!
This may seem impractical advice, but it will grow on you after you see or hear how the loss in your school community is portrayed in the days after it occurred. The media are poorly informed about suicide and suicide loss and are likely be more hurtful than helpful.
The media has questions; here are some for them: What interest is served by details on the means used? Do we need simplistic speculations on causality? Why aren’t parents, teachers, and students who are in shock getting support instead of contending with insensitive interviewers?
Why the persistent criminalization of suicide? “Shooting” equates it with terrorism, and “gunman” demeans the victim, the family, and friends. Sensational language conveys a sense of malevolence that may deter other students from disclosing suicidal thoughts and seeking help.
Thankfully most suicides receive no media attention. This raises the question of why any suicide should find its way into a newscast or newspaper. Suicides by well-known, young, or multiple victims, suicides by dramatic means, and highly visible suicides are all deemed "newsworthy." Regrettably a school-related suicide will almost always become the center of a media feeding frenzy.
Here are some guidelines to keep in mind:
1. Media exposure never helped anyone cope with a suicide loss.
2. Direct attention to the school’s response to the loss; the less said about the suicide the better.
3. Encourage survivors to focus on getting support and to avoid any media contact.
4. Discourage coverage that may promote a preoccupation with suicide among other at-risk youth.
5. Remember that the survivors are in shock and will be unable to offer much insight into the cause of their loss.
Some Issues to Consider:
Are "suicide bombers" really suicidal? It is more likely that they homicidal. They have nothing in common with the typical suicide victim who takes his or her life to end personal suffering. Describing them as homicidal would be more accurate and less stigmatizing to people who have been or are suicidal and the survivors of suicide victims. Of course, it wouldn't make for as dramatic a headline or caption.
Are mass murderers who kill themselves after slaying many victims completing suicide? No, they already demonstrated that they are homicidal and taking their own lives is just an extension of their homicidality. Associating these monsters with suicide victims is incorrect and irresponsible.
Comments on the Media Coverage of the Death of Hunter S. Thompson
To the Editor/Sports Illustrated:
Of all the articles that I read this past week about the death of Hunter Thompson, only the brief piece in the February 28, 2005 issue showed any awareness of how to appropriately report on a suicide and a sensitivity that what you said might be read by young people, those at risk of suicide, and those who have lost a loved one to suicide.
First, you did not give it a prominent position in the issue. Suicides shouldn't be lead articles or top-of-the broadcast stories.
Second, you didn't use that abominable phrase "committed suicide." This implies a lot of things that suicide is not such as an act by someone in control, or a crime (as in "committed murder"). Saying "died by suicide," as you did, is both more accurate and less value-ladened.
Third, the piece recounted some key biographical elements without implying that the death was the consequence of a depressed Mr. Thompson outliving his notoriety or talent. Those may have played a role but hopelessness and emotional pain are the true killers and they can beset even non-celebrities who make up the vast majority of suicide victims. Also centering on the fading of either career or talent does a disservice to Mr. Thompson and, even worse, makes it seem that suicide is rational for anyone in similar circumstances. Mr. Thompson actually possessed a number of the major risk factors for suicide (e.g., white male, over age 65, and history of substance abuse), which weighed against him.
Lastly, and here you showed true professionalism and rare journalistic restraint, you did not describe the means that he used to complete suicide. I shudder to think how Mr. Thompson's death may have been covered from the perspective of "gonzo" or "outlaw" journalism, but I commend how your writer and editor handled it.
Other media guidelines and comments on suicide coverage:
See Kevin Caruso's essay on this topic, "Media Guidelines for Reporting Suicides".
See "A Letter to the Philadelphia Inquirer" that speaks to some of the points made above.
See "Reporting Newsworthy Suicides" an Op-Ed piece from the 8.9.04 Philadelphia Inquirer.
See Suicide and the Media (New Zealand)
See Reporting Guidelines Washington State Youth Suicide Prevention Plan
See Suicide Sensitive Journalism (UK)
See J. Pirkis & R.W. Blood, Suicide and the Media: A Critical Review (Australia/2001)
See "Suicide & the Media: Pitfalls and Prevention" (UK/2003)
See MindFrame - Info for Media Professionals (Australia) Note advice about use of words like "unsuccessful" in regard to a suicide attempt.
See "Fighting the Stigma" Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma
See Suicide and the Media (UK) Many related references and links.
See "Media" Saving Lives D. Rice, NY State Office of Mental Health
See "Featuring Suicide in the Media" (Suicide Information Education Centre)
See "Suicide and Language" (1998) Doris Sommer-Rotenberg, Canadian Medical Assn. Journal 159(3) 239-240 (Written for physicians but more applicable to journalists)
See Picture This: Depression and Suicide Prevention ("A resource for creators.") SAMHSA (2008)
See "Guide to Engaging the Media in Suicide Prevention" SPAN (2007)
See "How “suicide” coverage went off the rails" Raj Persaud, British Medical Journal (2004) 329(7476) 1243.
See "Influences of the Media on Suicide" K. Hawton & K. Williams, British Medical Journal (2002) 325(7377) 1374–1375.
See "Suicide Coverage in Newspapers: An Ethical Consideration" Elizabeth B. Ziesenis, Journal of Mass Media Ethics (1991) Vol. 6, No. 4, Pages 234-244. (Abstract)
See COVERING SUICIDE WORLDWIDE: MEDIA RESPONSIBILITIES Guidelines, training and ethical issues raised by the latest review of research about the impact of media coverage on suicidal behaviour. Compiled by Bill Norris & Mike Jempson (The PressWise Trust) with Lesley Bygrave (Befrienders International.
See ERIC Article on School Suicide
Copyright © 2001-2010
Tony Salvatore Springfield, PA, USA
Posted 8.28.01 Last Modified 5.04.09