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Suicide reporting in the media

March 2019

Position statement 70


Summary

Appropriate reporting in the media can play an important role in preventing suicide and increasing public understanding.

 

Purpose

This position statement considers the evidence on the influence media reporting can have on suicidal behaviour and makes recommendations about responsible reporting. The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists (RANZCP) considers responsible media reporting to be an integral aspect of suicide prevention and encourages ongoing collaboration, research and leadership to ensure appropriate reporting of suicide in Australian and New Zealand. 

Key messages

  • Certain ways of reporting and discussing suicide can alienate members of the community, sensationalise the issue or inadvertently glamorise suicide.
  • The media should consider the impact of the presentation of suicide on people in the community, in particular considering those who are experiencing suicidal ideation or bereaved by suicide. 
  • It is imperative that clear, widely endorsed principles be followed for media reporting of suicide. These must be informed by the latest evidence and developed in collaboration with those working in the media to avoid providing glorified or detailed descriptions of suicide.
  • The RANZCP supports the principles and recommendations provided by the New Zealand Ministry of Health in Reporting Suicide: A resource for the media and in the resource funded by the Australian Department of Health, Reporting Suicide and Mental Illness: A Mindframe resource for media professionals.

Definitions

The term ‘media’ is used to refer to the widely and publicly available news and information media. This includes both traditional media coverage (e.g. newspaper, television, books) and social media coverage. ‘Social media’ refers to online and mobile tools that people use to share opinions, information, experiences, images and audiovisual clips, and includes websites and applications (apps) used for social networking (e.g. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube).

Background

Suicide has a devastating and often long-term impact on the community. Media reports of suicide can exacerbate this harmful impact on people bereaved by suicide, including friends, families/whānau 1, carers and health professionals. It may also extend the negative impact of suicide beyond the immediate community to the general population. Some individuals and groups can be particularly vulnerable to this impact, including people who are experiencing suicidal ideation. 

There is a robust body of scientific evidence that establishes that the way suicide deaths are reported in the media can impact suicidal behaviour in the community. This impact can manifest through increased suicide deaths, attempts and/or rates of ideation. Evidence also suggests that appropriate reporting of suicide can play an important role in suicide prevention and understanding. Pirkis, Burgess and Francis (2007) state that ‘there are times when it may be appropriate for a suicide to be reported, providing this is done accurately, responsibly, and ethically’. 

It is important that clear, widely endorsed guidelines be developed to promote the responsible media reporting of suicide. Engagement of online publishers, who may not be trained journalists, is also critical given the changing media landscape. The media has an important role in educating the public about health and social issues and is a key player in raising awareness about suicide, increasing understanding of depression and related issues, and providing information about sources of help for vulnerable individuals.

Some action has been taken to manage exposure to suicide content online more generally. In 2006, Australia became the first country to criminalise pro-suicide sites, the impact of which is still unfolding (Pirkis et al., 2009). In addition, in August 2018 Orygen, the National Centre of Excellence in Youth Mental Health, released #chatsafe guidelines to help young people to communicate safely online about suicide (Robinson et al., 2018). 

1. ‘Whānau’ (pronunciation: fa:naᵾ) is a Māori word used to describe an extended family group spanning three to four generations. The whānau continues to form the basic unit of Māori society (Rāwiri Taonui, 2012).
 

Evidence

There is substantial scientific evidence demonstrating that the way suicide deaths are reported in the media can impact rates of suicidal behaviour in the community (Stack, 2003; Etzersdorfer et al., 2004; Stack, 2005; Pirkis et al., 2006; Pirkis et al., 2007; Niederkrotenthaler et al., 2010; Niederkrotenthaler et al., 2012). Researchers theorise this effect is mediated by social learning, whereby vulnerable individuals may identify with people represented in the media and be inclined to copy their behaviour (Pirkis et al., 2006; Niederkrotenthaler et al., 2012).

Media reporting of suicide may increase the rate of suicidal behaviour in individuals who are experiencing suicidal ideation or are bereaved by suicide, and can raise awareness of suicide methods which these individuals might not previously have considered. This is particularly the case if the coverage is extensive, prominent, sensationalist and/or explicitly describes the method or location of death (Pirkis et al., 2007; Niederkrotenthaler et al., 2012). A meta-analysis by Niederkrotenthaler et al. (2012) found that the impact of suicide reporting in the media also extended to reporting a celebrity suicide, an effect which has been confirmed by more recent work (Ueda et al., 2014; Schäfer and Quiring, 2015; Suh et al., 2015). The impact of certain suicide reporting also appears to be particularly pronounced in teenagers and young adults, a group that may be more susceptible to social learning (Gould et al., 2003; Shoval et al., 2005; Gould et al., 2014).

Social media, and the internet generally, is an under-researched area. This is despite its broad reach and essentially unregulated content, and the explicit and directive nature of the material available. Early evidence suggests that any influence social media may have on suicide risk is complex and multifaceted (Luxton et al., 2012). Dunlop et al. (2011) found that social networking sites are a frequent source of information about suicide, and that discussion forums appear to be associated with increases in suicidal ideation. Although there have been some suggestions in the media of a link between social networking and ‘cluster’ suicides, further research is needed to confirm a causative link to youth suicide clusters (Pirkis et al., 2009; Robertson et al., 2012; Pirkis and Robinson, 2014).

Contribution of media towards suicide prevention

The media can contribute to suicide prevention by understanding aspects of reporting and portrayal that might increase suicide-related risks for vulnerable people, and adhering to relevant guidelines. At the very least, data suggests that media professionals and suicide experts need to work together to balance newsworthiness against the risk of encouraging modeled suicidal behavior (Pirkis et al., 2009). A valuable example of this, and a comprehensive resource in this field, is the Canadian Psychiatric Association Policy Paper on Media Guidelines for Reporting on Suicide (Sinyor et al., 2017). 

Emphasising that suicide is usually associated with remediable emotional conditions and that help is available can also ensure the media play a positive role. Media organisations and online publishers should also consider whether their content is culturally safe and appropriate. In many communities the depiction or mention of a person who has passed away can cause great distress, as can showing their image. Consultation with community members about appropriate language and visuals is important, along with ensuring a warning is attached to the content. 

It is crucial that guidelines in this field are developed with appropriate consultation and input from cultural groups in Australia and New Zealand. Reporting of suicide should recognise and adhere to the preferences and principles of relevant cultures. For example, in New Zealand consideration of Māori principles and practice is essential when reporting on suicide in Māori communities. Reporting should also acknowledge the broader impact of suicide on bereaved friends, families/whānau and carers, mindful of the different impact suicide may have in certain cultures. 

Current guidelines in Australia and New Zealand

The RANZCP supports the principles and recommendations provided by the New Zealand Ministry of Health (NZMoH) in Reporting Suicide: A resource for the media (NZMoH, 2011) and in resources funded by Australia’s Department of Health, Reporting Suicide and Mental Illness: A Mindframe resource for media professionals (Mindframe, 2014). Media peak bodies, including the Australian Press Council (APC) and Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance (MEAA), have endorsed the Mindframe principles in their codes of practice. The APC has also produced a Standard of Practice on Suicide Reporting, which reiterates that the reporting should not sensationalise, glamorise or trivialise suicides. It should also only include suicide deaths when they are in the public interest, should seek consent from the family and refrain from detailing methods and location of suicide (Australian Press Council, 2011).

In New Zealand Reporting Suicide: A resource for the media is intended to guide the media industry when reporting suicide events (NZMoH, 2011) with recommendations: to avoid inadvertently glorifying suicide; provide information on assistance; and avoid detailed descriptions of suicide methodology as well as repetition. Stories should not be placed on the front page nor should the word ‘suicide’ appear in the headline. Photographs or dramatic visuals should not be used and particular care should be taken when reporting suicides by celebrities. The NZMoH resource encourages consideration of cultural and spiritual attitudes to suicide, and notes that good practice includes seeking advice about the cultural or religious implications of a media report. Resources that are succinct and accessible, such as the ‘at a glance’ sheet which forms part of the New Zealand Reporting Suicide: A resource for the media, are ideal for media guidance.

As well as the NZMoH guiding resource, the Coroners Act 2006 (NZ) has stipulations relating to the reporting of suicide, which were updated in 2018 following a review by the New Zealand Law Commission.

Recommendations

The RANZCP recommends that:
  • psychiatrists and other health professionals familiarise themselves with existing guidelines on suicide reporting in the media, including the New Zealand Reporting Suicide: A resource for the media and the Australian Reporting Suicide and Mental Illness: A Mindframe resource for media professionals
  • governments in Australia and New Zealand commit to a program of frequent review of their respective guidelines on suicide reporting in the media, incorporating the most recent research on evolving forms of news and online publishing
  • media organisations in Australia and New Zealand:
    • ensure their work and publications adhere to the relevant Australian or New Zealand guidelines on suicide reporting in the media, and  
    • work collaboratively with governments in Australian and New Zealand to ensure the relevant guidelines are up-to-date and adequately reflect the current state of media and journalism.
  • social media organisations active in Australia and New Zealand consider ways in which they can improve their management of suicide-related content on their platforms, including by highlighting available resources for people who are experiencing difficulties.

Responsible committee: Committee for Professional Practice

Australian Press Council (APC) (2011) Standards of Practice: Suicide reporting. Available at: http://www.presscouncil.org.au/document-search/standard-suicide-reporting/ (accessed 22 June 2018).

Dunlop SM, More E, Romer D (2011) Where do youth learn about suicides on the Internet, and what influence does this have on suicide ideation? Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 52(10): 1073–80.

Etzersdorfer E, Voracek M, Sonneck G (2004) A dose-response relationship between imitational suicides and newspaper distribution. Archives of Suicide Research 8(2): 137–45.

Gould M, Jamieson P, Romer D (2003) Media contagion and suicide among the young. American Behavioral Scientist 46(9): 1269-1284.

Gould M, Kleinman M, Lake A, Forman J, Midle J (2014) Newspaper coverage of suicide and initiation of suicide clusters in teenagers in the USA, 1988–96: a retrospective, population-based, case-control study. The Lancet Psychiatry 1(1): 34–43.

Luxton DD, June JD, Fairall JM (2012) Social media and suicide: a public health perspective. American Journal of Public Health 102(S2): S195–S200.

Mindframe (2014) Reporting suicide and mental Illness: A Mindframe resource for media professionals. Available at: www.mindframe-media.info/for-media/reporting-suicide?a=10217 (accessed 15 June 2018).

New Zealand Ministry of Health (NZMoH) (2011) Reporting suicide: A resource for the media. Available at: https://www.health.govt.nz/system/files/documents/publications/reporting-suicide-a-resource-for-media-dec2011.pdf (accessed 15 June 2018).

Niederkrotenthaler T, Fu KW, Yip PS, Fong DY, Stack S, Cheng Q, Prikis J (2012) Changes in suicide rates following media reports on celebrity suicide: A meta-analysis. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health 66(11): 1037–42.

Niederkrotenthaler T, Voracek M, Herberth A, Till B, Strauss M, Etzersdorfer E, Eisenwort B, Sonneck G (2010) Role of media reports in completed and prevented suicide: Werther v. Papageno effects. British Journal of Psychiatry 197(3): 234–43.

Pirkis J, Burgess P, Francis C (2007) The Newsworthiness of Suicide. Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior 37(3): 278–83.

Pirkis J, Neal L, Dare A, Blood RW, Studdert D (2009) Legal Bans on Pro-Suicide Web Sites: An Early Retrospective from Australia. Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior 39(2): 190–3.

Pirkis J, Robinson J (2014) Improving our understanding of youth suicide clusters. Lancet Psychiatry 1(1): 5–6.

Pirkis JE, Burgess PM, Francis C, Blood R, Jolley D (2006) The relationship between media reporting of suicide and actual suicide in Australia. Social Sciences & Medicine 62(11): 2874–86.

Rāwiri Taonui (2012) ‘Tribal organisation – Whānau’. In: Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Available at: www.teara.govt.nz/en/tribal-organisation/page-4 (accessed 22 August 2018).

Robertson L, Skegg K, Poore M, Wiliams S, Taylor B (2012) An adolescent suicide cluster and the possible role of electronic communication technology. Crisis 33(4): 239–45.

Robinson J, Hill N, Thorn P, Teh Z, Battersby R, Reavley N (2018) #chatsafe: A young person’s guide for communicating safely online for suicide. Melbourne, Australia: Orygen, The National Centre of Excellence in Youth Mental Health.

Schäfer M, Quiring O (2015) The press coverage of celebrity suicide and the development of suicide frequencies in Germany. Health Communication 30(11): 1149–58.

Shoval G, Zalsman G, Polakevitch J, Shtein N, Sommerfeld E, Berger E, Apter A (2005) Effect of the broadcast of a television documentary about a teenager’s suicide in Israel on suicidal behaviour and methods. Crisis 26(1): 20–4.

Sinyor M, Schaffer A, Heisel M, Picard A, Adamson G, Cheung C, Katz L, Jetly R, Sareen J (2017) Media Guidelines for Reporting on Suicide: 2017 Update of the Canadian Psychiatric Association Policy Paper. Ottawa, Canada: Canadian Psychiatric Association.

Stack S (2003) Media Coverage as a risk factor in suicide. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health 57:238–40.

Stack S (2005) Suicide in the media: A quantitative review of studies based on nonfictional stories. Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior 35(2): 121–33.

Suh S, Chang Y, Kim N (2015) Quantitative exponential modelling of copycat suicides: Association with mass media effect in South Korea. Epidemiology and Psychiatric Sciences 24(2): 150–7.

Ueda M, Mori K, Matsubarashi T (2014) The effects of media reports of suicides by well-known figures between 1989 and 2010 in Japan. International Journal of Epidemiology 43(2): 623–9.
 

 


Disclaimer: This information is intended to provide general guidance to practitioners, and should not be relied on as a substitute for proper assessment with respect to the merits of each case and the needs of the patient. The RANZCP endeavours to ensure that information is accurate and current at the time of preparation, but takes no responsibility for matters arising from changed circumstances, information or material that may have become subsequently available.