Print newspaper coverage of suicide falls short of expert recommendations suggested by the website Reporting on Suicide and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, new research in JAMA Network Open finds.
How the news media covers suicide matters. Research suggests that reports on celebrity suicides are linked to subsequent increases in suicides — a so-called “copycat” or contagion effect. Mental health advocates urge that thoughtful reporting — for example, stressing the preventable nature of suicide, working to destigmatize mental illness and avoiding the glamorization of a celebrity’s death — may prevent contagion and connect individuals with needed mental health resources.
Accordingly, projects such as Reporting on Suicide have enlisted the expertise of journalism and suicide prevention experts to develop guidelines for reporting on suicide. It’s worth noting here that these are recommendations, not rules. Individual newsrooms and news organizations may have their own guidelines for how to approach the topic of suicide — or have no guidelines at all. And individual journalists may have differing opinions about the media’s responsibility in covering the issue.
It’s also worth noting that the guidelines are largely based on peer-reviewed research. As the “About” page on the Reporting on Suicide website explains, “The recommendations are based on more than 50 international studies on suicide contagion.”
The new study scrutinizes 10 print newspapers’ coverage of two celebrities who recently died by suicide — designer Kate Spade on June 5, 2018 and chef Anthony Bourdain on June 8, 2018.
The newspapers included in the study represent all regions of the U.S. and had a minimum print circulation of 200,000. The papers included were the Chicago Tribune, Denver Post, Houston Chronicle, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Seattle Times, Tampa Bay Times, USA Today, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post.
The authors wanted to focus on papers with wide readership because of their larger impact and because they tend to feature original reporting and writing on suicide deaths instead of republishing wire stories, John P. Ackerman, senior author on the paper and the suicide prevention coordinator for the Center for Suicide Prevention and Research at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio explains.
In coverage from the day after each of the deaths, researchers examined how closely the publications followed 14 guidelines gleaned from Reporting on Suicide and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention on covering suicide responsibly. June 11 was used for reporting on Bourdain’s death in USA Today, because it publishes in print on weekdays only.
“A really unfortunate natural experiment arose with Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain’s deaths that occurred closely together,” says Ackerman.
Some of the media coverage of Spade’s death was criticized by suicide prevention organizations and research organizations (such as the Annenberg Public Policy Center) for its sensationalist bent, including details such as the color of a scarf used as the lethal means.
He explains that his team was interested in whether coverage of Bourdain’s death just a few days after Spade’s followed more guidelines, perhaps in response to this criticism.
The researchers find that reports of Bourdain’s death adhered to more of the 14 guidelines than reports on Spade’s death. That, they note, indicates that criticism of the coverage of Spade’s death might have influenced how journalists covered Bourdain’s death.
However, none of the papers studied adhered to all 14 guidelines in their coverage of either death.
They all followed two of the guidelines, however: to avoid including “a single-cause explanation for suicide death” and avoid “referring to suicide as a growing problem, epidemic, or skyrocketing.”
None of the newspapers followed these two guidelines: to share a hopeful message that suicide is preventable and convey that suicidal behaviors can be reduced with mental health support.
For both deaths, most newspapers followed less than half the 14 guidelines.
Fewer than one-third followed six of them.
“Fairly consistently, [newspapers] weren’t doing the things that we know are pretty straightforward,” Ackerman says. He calls it “a missed opportunity to support those who are most vulnerable.”
He says the main goal of the study “is not to wag fingers at journalists.”
“It’s to say, not only can you reduce the harm of a story about a celebrity suicide, but there’s things that you can do that can potentially create a very positive impact,” he says. “There’s so many messages out there that could really be helpful.”
Ackerman says that effective journalistic practices include linking suicide to underlying mental health causes, stressing that suicidal crises are typically short-lived, providing details about resources available and reporting that most people who survive suicide attempts will not go on to die by suicide.
He suggests that training journalists early in their careers could help improve adherence to guidelines. He also recommends newsrooms use a checklist developed by Reportingonsuicide.org.
“It’s striking that we still treat the topic of suicide with a level of stigma and morbid curiosity that we don’t cover other forms of death with,” he says. “If a person died of a heart attack, would you be talking about the scarf that they were wearing? So I think we still have a ways to go in not sensationalizing this.”
But, he says, the groundwork is in place for positive change to occur.
“There are guidelines that are easily accessible,” he says “There are resources that can be added to any story, without too much additional effort or space.”
What to do (and what to avoid) when reporting on suicide
According to the 14 guidelines, responsible news coverage of suicide:
☑ Shares a hopeful message that suicide is preventable.
☑ Conveys that suicidal behaviors can be reduced with mental health support and treatment.
☑ Provides helpful information, such as warning signs or risk factors of suicide.
☑ Does not provide details about the location of the death.
☑ Provides the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline phone number.
☑ Does not include details or images of the lethal means or method used.
☑ Is not prominently placed in the newspaper.
☑ Does not describe suicide as inexplicable or without warning.
☑ Does not report specific details concerning notes left behind.
☑ Uses language preferred by mental health advocates, e.g., “died by suicide” rather than “committed suicide.”
☑ Uses a photo that focuses on the individual’s life instead of his or her death.
☑ Uses a non-sensational headline.
☑ Avoids single-cause explanation for suicide death.
☑ Avoids referring to suicide as a growing problem, epidemic or skyrocketing.
Per the guidelines above, we are including the number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, a toll-free hotline available to people having thoughts of suicide. That number is 1-800-273-8255 (TALK). SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources includes a list of additional resources for people having suicidal thoughts, as well as resources for their friends and families.
More research: Journalists perpetuate myth about suicide during winter holidays; Suicide prevention: Research on successful interventions; How the news media impacts suicide trends: Research roundup