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Views And Reviews

Reporting suicide The effect of media coverage on patterns of self harm

BMJ 1994; 308 doi: (Published 28 May 1994) Cite this as: BMJ 1994;308:1446
  1. D Gunnell

    Suicide accounts for only 1% of all deaths and yet when these occur they frequently attract disproportionate media interest. Headlines such as “Coroner told of Human Torch Horror” and “ Tragic Countess of Caithness died from a single shot” are commonplace following the suicides of individuals whose death from other causes would probably been been left unreported.

    William Farr wrote in 1841 that “no fact is better established in science than that suicide (and murder may perhaps be added) is often committed from imitation. . . . Do the advantages of publicity counterbalance the evils attendant on one such death? Why should cases of suicide be recorded at length in the papers any more than cases of fever?” Farr called for a cessation of the reporting of “dramatic tales of suicide, murder and bloodshed.”

    There is clear evidence that the media may affect method specific suicide rates. In Britain an excess of about 60 suicides by burning occurred in the 12 months after the widely publicised political suicide by burning of a woman in Geneva.1 The evidence concerning the media's influence on overall suicide rates is less clear. Increase in suicide rates, following the reporting of real life suicide, have been described both in Britain and the United States. 2,3 The methodologies for these and other studies are questionable, with the examination of changes in rates over apparently arbitrarily selected periods of …

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