The World Health Organisation estimate there are 900,000 deaths due to suicide every year. Each and every suicide is a tragedy, and often has a lasting impact on family, friends and communities. Thankfully, there are ways to prevent suicide – one such approach is through considered reporting and portrayal of suicides in the media.
Studies have shown that certain media portrayals of suicide are associated with copycat behaviour, resulting in further suicidal behaviour and completed suicides (Sisask & Varnik, 2012). Although the majority of reportings carry no such ‘copycat’ effects, there is evidence that some types of reporting are more likely to than others (such as celebrity suicides) (Stack, 2005).
Overall there is broad agreement that media guidelines for suicide reporting are a good prevention strategy and such guidelines have been recommended in the UK since 2002. But does the British media adhere to them?
This is what Pitman and Stevenson’s recent study sought to find out (Pitman & Stevenson, 2014).
Pitman and Stevenson focused their study on UK national newspaper arts reviews of recent UK exhibitions of the work of four artists where high media interest was anticipated, and who had died by suicide: Van Gogh, Rothko, Kirchner and Gorky.
They stated two reasons for doing so:
- The arts sections are likely to be read by people from literary and artistic backgrounds who are one of the higher occupational risk groups for suicide.
- They hypothesised that messages about sensitive reporting of suicide were less likely to have filtered out beyond the core news journalists, despite them being relevant for reporting on the suicides of arts or entertainment celebrities, dead and alive.
However most of the research exploring media portrayal of suicides has been limited to individuals from contemporary society. Although there is no evidence to suggest the impact of historical suicide reportings would be any different, I can’t help but feel they are likely to be. Arguably, one is more likely to feel a stronger emotional impact learning about a death by suicide from the society you are also living in, compared to a historical figure. I feel like a piece of research comparing the impact of historical and contemporary suicide reporting ought to have been done prior to this study.
The media guidelines used were synthesised from a range of sources including the Samaritans, MediaWise Trust and PCC (now IPSO). Its worth considering that although such guidelines are recommended, adherence is voluntary. Furthermore, the identified guidelines do not exist in collated form therefore its probably unlikely to expect high levels of adherence to all the guidelines identified. In reality, journalists are busy people and if reporting about a completed suicide, one set of guidelines would probably suffice.
Content analysis was used to determine whether the journalist had adhered to these recommendations when describing the death of the artist. The two authors independently coded all identified media, with a third coder to resolve disagreements; a good inter-rater agreement was reported (κ value of .99), suggesting good reliability.
The following results were reported by the authors:
- 100% of the 68 articles that mentioned the artist’s death breached media guidelines by omitting information on sources of support for people affected by suicide
- 38% provided explicit descriptions of the suicide method
- 27% romanticised or glorified the suicide
- 21% used inappropriate language (such as “a successful suicide attempt” or “to commit suicide”)
- 7% employed simplistic explanations for suicide triggers
The authors concluded that these results highlighted poor compliance with media guidelines on the reporting of suicide.
So, do British newspapers breach suicide reporting guidelines?
I agree with the authors that this study highlights poor compliance of media guidance on the reporting of historical suicides in British newspapers, however this is not enough evidence to suggest that British newspapers breach suicide reporting guidelines. On the other hand, this is a really interesting study which highlights areas for improvement and further research opportunities.
Compliance with suicide reporting guidelines
Let’s start with measuring compliance. As noted above, the guidelines were voluntary and synthesised from a range of sources. It was therefore unlikely that the authors were going to find high levels of adherence. Perhaps what this study highlights is the need to develop a single agreed set of guidelines, and to do so in partnership with journalists. Although guidelines are recommended in the UK, they have been developed without any journalistic input, whereas experience from Australia shows that the more journalists are involved in the development of such guidelines, the more likely they are to adhere to them (Pirkis and Blood, 2010).
As the authors acknowledge, poor compliance does not imply poor knowledge. We do not know from this study whether the journalists were aware or unaware of the guidelines, or whether they tried to adhere but were unable to due to circumstances out of their control. However, this does not take away from the finding that many arts section readers were exposed to portrayals of suicide which are ill advised. For example the following real exerts highlight inappropriate language, simplistic reasoning for suicide and explicit details.
“(Rothko) felt misunderstood by the world at large and committed suicide in 1970.” Mark Hudson 5 October 2008 Rothko at his bleakest The Mail on Sunday
“Four days later, Van Gogh went out into the fields and clumsily shot himself in the chest with a revolver” Richard Cork 10 January 2010 Vincent on Vincent The Independent on Sunday
“He had swallowed a massive dose of barbiturates, apparently, and slicing deep into his inner arm at the elbow had taken his own life.” Rachel Campbell-Johnston, September 24, 2008, “Doorways into the darkness,” The Times
This study also raises an interesting question regarding the comparative impact of reporting contemporary or historical suicides. Do these effect readers in the same way? Or should different media guidelines be developed for contemporary and historical suicide reporting? There is certainly room for improvement in the British media’s reporting of suicides. Our celebrity-embracing culture means that, now more than ever, responsible reporting of suicides by the media is an important part of suicide prevention. However, it is clear from Jonathan Jones’ article Arts critics do not romanticise suicide in The Guardian where he stated “I make no apology and nor should other critics” that unfortunately not all journalists believe the guidance applies to them.
The authors have suggested further research would help strengthen the evidence base for media guideline, such as exploring:
- Awareness of media guidelines among reporters in each journalistic field;
- Journalists’ perceptions of whether guidelines are applicable to their field;
- The impact of suicide reporting within different journalistic and media content;
- The impact of irresponsible reporting of historical suicides; and
- The effect of interventions designed to encourage journalists across a range of fields and media channels to report suicide responsibly.
If you need help
If you need help and support now and you live in the UK or the Republic of Ireland, please call the Samaritans on 116 123.
If you live elsewhere, we recommend finding a local Crisis Centre on the IASP website.
We also highly recommend that you visit the Connecting with People: Staying Safe resource.
Pitman A, Stevenson F. Suicide Reporting Within British Newspapers’ Arts Coverage: Content Analysis of Adherence to Media Guidelines (PDF). Crisis 2014 DOI: 10.1027/0227-5910/a000294.
Pirkis, J., and Blood, R. W. (2010). Suicide and the news and information media: A critical review (PDF). Canberra, Australia: Commonwealth of Australia.
Sisask, M., and Varnik, A. (2012). Media roles in suicide prevention: A systematic review. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 9(1), 123–138.
Stack, S. (2005). Suicide in the media: A quantitative review of studies based on nonfictional stories. Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior, 35(2), 121–133. [PubMed abstract]
Media guidelines for the reporting of suicide. Samaritans, website last accessed 20 Jan 2015.
Suicide. Media Wise Trust, website last accessed 20 Jan 2015.
Editors’ Code of Practice. IPSO, website last accessed 20 Jan 2015.
Best practice suicide reporting tips. Samaritans, website last accessed 21 Jan 2015.
Useful links to support organisations
- Samaritans (08457 90 90 90) operates a 24-hour service available every day of the year. If you prefer to write down how you are feeling, or if you are worried about being overheard on the phone, you can email Samaritans at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Childline (0800 1111) runs a helpline for children and young people in the UK. Calls are free and the number will not show up on your phone bill.
- Additional resources are listed on the NHS Choices website http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/Suicide/Pages/Getting-help.aspx