Journalists should take extra care while reporting suicides as providing details such as methods of suicides on the headlines can influence vulnerable people to take the extreme step, warns a study.
“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 study co-author Mark Sinyor, a psychiatrist at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre and the University of Toronto in Canada.
The findings, published in CMAJ (Canadian Medical Association Journal), suggest 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.
“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 persons in crisis by reminding them that suicide isn’t the only option and that help is available,” Sinyor said.
For the study, researchers from Canada, Austria and Australia 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 (including The New York Times) in the Toronto media market and suicide deaths in Toronto from 2011 to 2014.
Specifically, the study looked for a link between certain types of reporting and suicide deaths within the seven days after publication.
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.
“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,” Sinyor said.