Intended for healthcare professionals

Editorials

Influences of the media on suicide

BMJ 2002; 325 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.325.7377.1374 (Published 14 December 2002) Cite this as: BMJ 2002;325:1374

Researchers, policy makers, and media personnel need to collaborate on guidelines

  1. Keith Hawton, director,
  2. Kathryn Williams, researcher
  1. Centre for Suicide Research, University Department of Psychiatry, Warneford Hospital, Oxford OX3 7JX

Reporting and portrayal of suicidal behaviour in the media may have potentially negative influences and facilitate suicidal acts by people exposed to such stimuli. Recent systematic reviews by others and ourselves (unpublished) have found overwhelming evidence for such effects.1 Evidence for the influence of media on suicidal behaviour has been shown for newspaper and television reports of actual suicides, film and television portrayals of suicides, and suicide in literature, especially suicide manuals. The potential for “suicide sites” on the internet influencing suicidal behaviour remains to be proved, but anecdotal evidence of negative influences is accumulating. 2 3

The impact of the media on suicidal behaviour seems to be most likely when a method of suicide is specified—especially when presented in detail—when the story is reported or portrayed dramatically and prominently—for example with photographs of the deceased or large headlines—and when suicides of celebrities are reported.46 Younger people seem to be most vulnerable to the influence of the media, although limited evidence also shows an impact on elderly people. Another factor is similarity between the media stimulus or model and the observer in terms of age, sex, and nationality. An important aspect of the presentation of suicide in the media is that it usually oversimplifies the causes, attributing the act to single factors such as financial disasters, broken relationships, or failure in examinations. The most common factor leading to suicide, mental illness, is often overlooked.7

Tackling this problem is one component of preventing suicides, and it is included in the recently published National Suicide Prevention Strategy for England.8 Relevant questions are, therefore, how this should be done and whether it can be effective. One approach has been to produce guidelines for the media, of which there are now several. 9 10 All these emphasise the need to avoid dramatic reporting or portrayal of suicide and specifying means used. Most highlight the desirability of providing accurate facts about causes, including due emphasis on mental health problems. At present no clear policy exists for the problem of “suicide sites” on the internet.

One potential drawback of guidelines is that, in isolation, they may be seen as dictating what the media can or cannot do and as threatening freedom of speech. Firstly, for them to have credibility with authorities in the media and with journalists they must be based on evidence. Secondly, they should be produced ideally as a collaboration between researchers, public health policy makers, and senior media personnel. Thirdly, which is perhaps most difficult, they should be shown to work. Some limited evidence exists of this. In an initiative in Switzerland it was shown that collaboration between researchers and the media resulted in a reduction of sensational and lengthy reports of suicides in newspapers.11 No attempt was made, however, to measure the impact on suicide. Efforts to limit the reporting of subway suicides in Vienna through the collaboration of researchers and journalists were followed by a reduction in the number of suicides and suicide attempts by this method.12

A further but unanswered question is whether media portrayal of positive coping with adversity in circumstances that might have led to suicidal acts could provide a model that might also reduce suicidal behaviour. Steps in this direction are worth exploring but will also need collaborative initiatives. Their evaluation will present a considerable but surmountable challenge.

Possibly the most influential approach to the problem of media and suicide will be through ensuring that training courses for careers in the media pay adequate attention to this important topic. Similar initiatives should be made available to those already established in media careers. Finally, inappropriate media portrayal and reporting of suicidal behaviour should be immediately highlighted. This should encourage producers and editors to remain aware of their potentially influential role in future suicides.

Footnotes

  • Competing interests The authors have received funding for research from Syngenta.

References

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