Media Guidelines for Suicide Reporting

(Taken from the American Association of Suicidology)

Are you a reporter working on a story related to suicide? If so, you may want to be aware of a phenomenon called "media-related suicide contagion."

According to numerous research studies, prominent media stories about suicide are associated with a significant increase in suicide attempts within the media outlet's coverage area. Adolescents and young adults seem to be especially susceptible to suicide contagion.

To help reporters and community officials learn about this problem and minimize the risks, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the American Association of Suicidology have endorsed a set of recommendations to consider when reporting about suicide. These recommendations include background information and examples of media reports that are more likely or less likely to promote suicide contagion.

In general, research shows that the following types of news reports have an effect of increasing suicidal behavior:

  • Simplifying the reasons for the suicide
    Suicide is never the result of a single factor or event, but rather results from a complex interaction of many factors and usually involves a history of psychosocial problems. Public officials and the media should carefully explain that the final precipitating event was not the only cause of a given suicide. Most persons who have committed suicide have had a history of problems that may not have been acknowledged during the acute aftermath of the suicide. Cataloguing the problems that could have played a causative role in a suicide is not necessary, but acknowledgment of these problems is recommended.

  • Engaging in repetitive, ongoing, or excessive reporting of suicide in the news
    Repetitive and ongoing coverage, or prominent coverage, of a suicide tends to promote and maintain a preoccupation with suicide among at-risk persons, especially among persons 15-24 years of age. This preoccupation appears to be associated with suicide contagion. Information presented to the media should include the association between such coverage and the potential for suicide contagion. Public officials and media representatives should discuss alternative approaches for coverage of newsworthy suicide stories.

  • Providing sensational coverage of suicide
    By its nature, news coverage of a suicidal event tends to heighten the general public's preoccupation with suicide. This reaction is also believed to be associated with contagion and the development of suicide clusters. Public officials can help minimize sensationalism by limiting, as much as possible, morbid details in their public discussions of suicide. News media professionals should attempt to decrease the prominence of the news report and avoid the use of dramatic photographs related to the suicide (e.g., photographs of the funeral, the deceased person's bedroom, and the site of the suicide).

  • Reporting "how-to" description of suicide
    Describing technical details about the method of suicide is undesirable. For example, reporting that a person died from carbon monoxide poisoning may not be harmful; however, providing details of the mechanism and procedures used to complete the suicide may facilitate imitation of the suicidal behavior by other at-risk persons.

  • Presenting suicide as a tool for accomplishing certain ends
    Suicide is usually a rare act of a troubled or depressed person. Presentation of suicide as a means of coping with personal problems (e.g., the breakup of a relationship or retaliation against parental discipline) may suggest suicide as a potential coping mechanism to at-risk persons. Although such factors often seem to trigger a suicidal act, other psychopathological problems are almost always involved. If suicide is presented as an effective means for accomplishing specific ends, it may be perceived by a potentially suicidal person as an attractive solution.

  • Glorifying suicide or persons who commit suicide
    News coverage is less likely to contribute to suicide contagion when reports of community expressions of grief (e.g., public eulogies, flying flags at half-mast, and erecting permanent public memorials) are minimized. Such actions may contribute to suicide contagion by suggesting to susceptible persons that society is honoring the suicidal behavior of the deceased person, rather than mourning the person's death.

  • Focusing on the suicide completer's positive characteristics
    Empathy for family and friends often leads to a focus on reporting the positive aspects of a suicide completer's life. For example, friends or teachers may be quoted as saying the deceased person "was a great kid" or "had a bright future," and they avoid mentioning the troubles and problems that the deceased person experienced. As a result, statements venerating the deceased person are often reported in the news. However, if the suicide completer's problems are not acknowledged in the presence of these positive statements, suicidal behavior may appear attractive to other at-risk persons -- especially those who rarely receive positive reinforcement for desirable behaviors.

  • Treat survivors with sensitivity and respect their privacy
    Immediately following a death by suicide, grieving family members and friends are in shock, have difficulty understanding what happened, and may be at heightened risk of suicide themselves. Care and consideration should always be shown when interviewing close family and friends of the victim.

  • Provide information that increases public awareness
    Enhancing general public awareness about suicide risk factors, warning signs, and possible actions to assist a suicidal person can help friends and family members recognize suicidal risk in a vulnerable person.

  • List available community resources
    Information on available resources (help lines, crisis services, and clinical services) with up-to-date contact information should always be included in media stories dealing with suicide.

  • Feature stories about people who adopted life-affirming options
    Stories that present positive ways of coping and positive role models can help prevent further suicide attempts.

  • Consider providing local suicide hotline numbers
    Let people know that anyone who is suicidal can call these numbers toll free, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

A statement like the following can SAVE LIVES:

If you or someone you know is suicidal, please call 911.

Feel free to use the above statement verbatim in your coverage. Or add other contact information in a way that would be best for your story.

Emphasize that suicide can be prevented if people get help. This is another EXTEMELY important point – people who are suicidal MUST get immediate help.

Do not hesitate to talk about suicide in stories. But ALWAYS do so in a way that provides help, hope, and resources for the suicidal and suicide survivors. Again, let people know that is available 24 hours a day.

There is a strong stigma associated with suicide, so it MUST be talked about. Sensitive articles about suicide can help REDUCE this stigma; but please be EXTREMELY careful about how you talk about it and how you cover stories about suicide.

Do not begin a television newscast with a suicide story.

Do not place suicide stories on the cover of newspapers or magazines.

Do not sensationalize suicides.

Do not romanticize suicides.

Never portray suicides as heroic.

Never simplify suicide. Mental health issues are very complicated and each individual situation is unique.

Never say that a suicide "ended pain" or "ended suffering" Suicide CAUSES excruciating pain for loved ones left behind. Also, people need to be alive to feel relief from pain. Suicide CAUSES pain.

The term "committed suicide" is NOT accurate and is VERY hurtful to those who have attempted suicide and to suicide survivors. Say "died by suicide." People commit crimes. Suicide is not a crime. Period. Unfortunately, the expression "committed suicide" is frequently used, but YOU can help turn the tide by saying "died by suicide."

Do not use the term "failed suicide." Use the term "attempted suicide" instead. Again, explain why people die by suicide.

Use facts like these: The number one cause for suicide is untreated depression. Over 90% of the people who die by suicide have clinical depression or a similar mental illness when they die.