Originally created 08/11/01

Suicide study offers guidelines for news coverage

By portraying suicide as the inexplicable act of an otherwise healthy person, well-meaning reporters may inadvertently encourage people to act on their own suicidal tendencies, according to a report released Thursday by a coalition of health-care organizations.

To combat this, the group, which includes the surgeon general's office, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institute of Mental Health, and international organizations, released a list of recommendations for media coverage aimed at preventing "copycat" suicides.

The report, based on decades of research on media coverage of suicide, found that certain ways of describing suicide in the media contributed to what scientists call "suicide contagion," or copycat suicides.

The research indicated that some news reports inadvertently romanticized suicide by portraying it as a heroic or romantic act. Doing so, the report found, may encourage others to identify with the victim.

More than 30,000 Americans end their own lives every year. Suicide is the eighth-leading cause of death in the United States.

Listing the method of suicide may also encourage imitation among the suicidal. Scientists say the more detailed the description of the method of suicide, the greater the danger of that method being repeated by someone else.

Herbert Hendin, the medical director of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, which worked on the report, said that too often media reports indicate that a single incident - such as loss of a job or a family - is the catalyst for a suicide.

In fact, he said, suicidal people often show signs months in advance.

The report also recommends that reporters ask questions such as, has the victim been treated for depression or any other mental disorder, or had a problem with substance abuse.

The report finds that celebrity deaths may be more likely to produce imitation. It suggests reporters not overlook any mental health or drug problems when covering suicidal stars.

"With celebrities, people can identify or feel involved," Hendin said.

During the month after Marilyn Monroe died, 30 suicide victims in New York left notes linking their suicide to her drug overdose, Hendin said. Monroe's death was ruled a probable suicide.

And the report cautions reporters not to dramatize the impact of suicide through descriptions or pictures of grieving relatives, teachers or classmates. Seeing such expressions of grief, the report cautions, may encourage potential victims to see suicide as a way of getting attention or a form of retaliation against others.

The Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania canvassed media outlets for reaction to the guidelines. Kathleen Jamieson, director of the center, said part of the study entailed interviewing reporters about whether they were aware of previous suicide coverage guidelines issued by groups such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Few reporters knew about those guidelines.

"We believe suicide should be covered and it is newsworthy," she said. "But sometimes we do need to be very careful about how we write this and how we talk about this. We are not saying, 'don't cover this,' but when you cover this, please consider these things."

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