MediaWatch: Reporting on Suicide
Years ago, I worked as a reporter for a small chain of newspapers in upstate New York. Whenever people died by suicide, our editor included “Death was self-inflicted” in their obituaries. Family members often called into the office greatly upset, because of the stigma they felt was imposed on their loved one’s memory and their family’s reputation. They didn’t want anyone to know.
Today, responses are changing.
September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month and individuals who have attempted but not completed suicide as well as family survivors are speaking out publicly in the interest of public education and prevention.
Stories have appeared nationally in The Washington Post or locally in media such as The Lowell Sun in Massachusetts. In one Alabama paper, a survivor of a deceased friend wrote: “We must keep the conversation going, we must not be afraid of the word ‘suicide,’ we much reach out to those who are hurting, and maybe we can save a life.”
Even more powerful is testimony by people who have survived a suicide attempt. A public service announcement this month featured men reading suicide notes they had prepared years before. The video encourages men to talk with others “when the going gets tough” and to “keep the conversation going.” It’s an affirmation of hope, prevention and recovery.
At the same time, there are risks that come with this kind of openness.
Certain types of news coverage can increase the likelihood of suicide contagion or “copycat suicide” among vulnerable individuals. The risk increases when explicit methods are described, dramatic headlines or graphic images are used or deaths are sensationalized or glamorized.
Leading experts, public health organizations, media organizations and influential journalists have developed comprehensive recommendations for Reporting on Suicide. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have endorsed these guidelines, but many editors and reporters are unaware of them. One of the leaders in the development of these guidelines was Ken Norton, executive director of NAMI New Hampshire and an advocate for “postvention” as part of overall suicide prevention.
The reporting recommendations can be applied to television and movies—as well as online and social media posts. One article in The Daily Dot—which calls itself the “hometown newspaper” of the Internet—explores the risks and benefits of disclosing mental illness online. Meanwhile, Facebook has a feature for suicide prevention and Tumblr is promoting discussion of mental health issues.
It’s a new frontier. Open conversations about suicide can eliminate stigma and save lives, but how we talk about it and especially how mass media reports on it requires carefulness and sensitivity. We all have tremendous power for change. We need to use it wisely.
When in doubt, consult the reporting guidelines. If you believe a news or feature story has stepped over the line, please ask them to talk a close look at www.reportingonsuicide.org.
If a person is contemplating suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Information about mental illness and support is also available through the NAMI HelpLine