The issue of media reporting of suicide was once again thrust into the spotlight this week, with mental health researcher, clinician and former Australian of the year Pat McGorry renewing his calls for a new approach to reporting suicide.
Writing in the Fairfax papers, McGorry said:
“Just as we’ve done with the road toll, the mainstream media should report frequently and prominently a tally of lives lost to suicide through a national campaign funded by the federal government.”
Suicide is a multidimensional problem that encompasses biological, psychological and social factors. But while it’s important to encourage greater community discussion about seeking help for mental distress, we need to tread very carefully when it comes to reporting suicide.
Suicide research suggests that certain types of media reporting may trigger further suicidal behaviours among vulnerable people.
This form of contagion has often been referred to as the Werther effect, which comes from Goethe’s 1774 novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, in which a young fellow shoots himself because he can’t cope with the pain of unrequited love. The story was said to have prompted a wave of real-life copycat suicides throughout Europe.
But evidence-based research on the media reporting of suicide really only started only in the 1960s.
Recent large-scale reviews of the evidence by Australian researchers Jane Pirkis and Warwick Blood found there was an association between the non-fictional (news) media portrayal of suicides and actual suicidal behaviours. The results weren’t so clear about the fictional portrayal of suicides.
The negative effect of news media reporting has been attributed to:
- glamorising and sensationalising
- detailed and repeated reports
- presentation of suicide method
- front page coverage and use of images and large headlines.
Media reporting has been shown to emphasise single factors (such as the global financial crisis), over-report rare and lethal suicide methods (jumping), and under-report the influence of mental health problems.
Young people and the elderly are more likely to be affected by the media portrayal of suicidal behaviours than the middle-aged.
Reducing the risk
In order to avoid suicide contagion and to promote responsible media reporting of suicidal behaviours, several countries have developed or adopted media guidelines in accordance with World Health Organization and International Association for Suicide Prevention recommendations in the past decade.
It’s important to note that media guidelines don’t dictate to journalists what to do. Rather, they aim to empower and encourage journalists to collaborate with researchers and public health policy makers to help save lives by reporting in a responsible manner.
There is still limited evidence on the preventative effects of the media’s reporting of suicide. But one example of media reporting successfully reducing suicidal behaviours was in the wake of Kurt Cobain’s death in 1994. There was no contagion effect and calls to crisis hotlines increased. This has been attributed to the professional and responsible media portrayal of his death and subsequent crisis intervention (the presentation of crisis hotline numbers).
Another example is the introduction of media guidelines in Austria, which were found to increase the quality of reporting and reduced suicidal behaviours. Importantly, the reporting on people with suicidal ideation who had made use of positive coping mechanisms was linked with a reduction in suicides.
The researchers coined this phenomenon the Papageno effect, which refers to the Mozart opera The Magic Flute, in which a young man in love has suicidal ideation, but receives help and learns to cope well.
Reporting suicide in Australia
Some researchers have investigated the effect of media guidelines on the quantity and quality of reporting suicides.
The Australian guidelines for reporting suicide, prepared by Mindframe National Media Initiative, were released in 2002. An impact analysis showed the guidelines led to an almost two-fold increase in the number of news reports about suicide and, importantly, improved the quality of reporting.
A number of challenges remain for journalists. The pain caused to family and people left behind by suicide is tremendous, and their voices should be heard. But this doesn’t necessarily mean details of suicides should be published. After all, we still don’t have any evidence about the effect of the portrayal of people bereaved by suicide in the media.
We certainly shouldn’t avoid talking about suicide. Indeed, the evidence supports discussions about suicide in the context of help-seeking possibilities and interventions. But journalists should be cautious when presenting the topic and follow the guidelines for responsible media reporting.
For help or information call Lifeline on 13 11 14, Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800 or MensLine Australia on 1300 78 99 78 or visit beyondblue.org.au.