Reading details about suicide cases can push vulnerable people towards taking the extreme step, say scientists who underscore the need for understanding the impact of media reports on suicidal populations.
A large study, published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, found significant associations between reporting details and suicide deaths, “It is important for reporters and media outlets to understand that how they report on suicide can have a real impact across the population,” said Mark Sinyor, a psychiatrist at University of Toronto in Canada.
The study supports previous research that has shown that exposure to media reporting on suicide may lead some vulnerable people to similar behaviour, a phenomenon called suicide contagion, and in some circumstances, may also lead to help-seeking behaviour.
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“When media reports include resources such as crisis services and messages of hope, it can have a positive impact on the public, and potentially help a person in crisis by reminding them that suicide isn’t the only option and that help is available,” said Sinyor.
Researchers examined the relationship between potentially harmful and helpful elements of print and online media reports about suicide.
They looked at almost 17,000 articles in 13 major publications in the Toronto media market and suicide deaths in Toronto from 2011 to 2014. The study looked for a link between certain types of reporting and suicide deaths within the 7 days after publication.
The research team identified associations between several specific elements of media reports and suicide deaths.
It suggests that reporting on suicide can have a meaningful impact on suicide deaths and that journalists and media outlets/organisations should carefully consider the specific content of reports before publication.
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“This study emphasises the importance of responsible reporting and identifies that relatively few media reports included helpful information such as crisis resources and messages of hope,” said Sinyor.
From 2011 to 2014, there were 6,367 articles with suicide as the major focus and 947 suicide deaths in Toronto over the same period.
Several elements were associated with increased suicides, such as describing the method - especially in the headline - describing suicide as inevitable and reporting on suicide in celebrities.
Articles about murder-suicides were associated with decreased suicides.
“Contagion is thought to occur when a vulnerable reader identifies with suicide-related media,” Sinyor said.
“The fact that reports about celebrity suicide appeared to lead to contagion but the reverse was seen for reports about murder-suicide is very much in keeping with what we know,” he said.
“Suicide is a complex phenomenon that is influenced by many factors. We encourage journalists to take extra care to contextualise their reporting, especially when a story is about someone or a situation that people are likely to identify with,” said Sinyor.