Does News Reporting Encourage Suicide Outbreaks?

Study has implications for how media covers teen suicides

Published on June 6, 2014by Elaine Meyer

They have been called “suicide outbreaks,” “suicide epidemics,” or “copycat suicides”—when multiple suicides occur in a community in a short period of time, usually among teenagers and young adults. Suicide clusters are somewhat of a mystery: why does a suicide lead to an “outbreak” of many more in some communities but not in others?

To help answer that question, a group of researchers at Columbia University, led by Dr. Madelyn Gould, a professor of epidemiology in psychiatry, examined the influence of media coverage in the initiation of suicide clusters in a study published in Lancet Psychiatry last month. Although research has shown that press reports are associated with suicide spikes nationally, no study had yet examined how they might influence suicide clusters.

Dr. Gould and her colleagues examined the period between 1988-1996 looking at news reporting in various communities around the country in the aftermath of the first suicide of a cluster. They compared this to coverage in communities that saw just one suicide. They found that there were significantly more news stories in cluster communities than in isolated suicide communities, suggesting an association between reporting on suicides and suicide clusters. Newspapers in the cluster communities gave more prominent and detailed coverage of suicidal individuals, such as front-page placement, photography, headlines containing the word “suicide,” specification of the method used, and a more detailed description of the person and how he or she committed the act.

The researchers only observed the association in the coverage that focused on a suicidal individual—as opposed to stories that covered suicide more generally. This “supports the theory that the media effect operates through the mechanism of identification with a model…. [T]he models with the most effect are those who are either similar to the reader (i.e., another teenager) or revered by him or her (e.g., a celebrity),” the authors write.

The authors controlled the study so that nothing about the suicides they examined would have led to varying coverage in the comparison groups—such as how graphic or public a suicide was.

Although the study does not prove causality, the authors suggest theories for why media coverage could influence suicides. Repeated coverage may normalize suicide in the eyes of young, vulnerable people, according to one theory, or it may “prime” latent thoughts in already suicidal youth, according to another theory.

Media guidelines on how to cover suicide, which have been published by the World Health Organization, among other sources, can be helpful.

“In light of the extensive use of social media by teens, we hope our current findings will stimulate research on social media’s impact on suicidal behavior. We also would recommend that our suggestions for responsible reporting about suicidal individuals be applied by all who generate suicide-related stories via social media, which would include teens, as well as media professionals,” the authors say.

Edited by Barbara Aaron and Dana March