Journalists must take care in reporting on suicide

Including crisis resources among recommendations for safer reporting.

Journalists must take care in reporting on suicide
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According to a large study published in CMAJ suggests that there is a significant link between reporting suicidal news and a real impact across the population. The study suggests that the exposure to media reporting on suicide may lead some vulnerable people to similar behavior, a phenomenon called suicide contagion. In some cases, it may lead to help-seeking behavior.

The study was conducted by researchers from Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre and the University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario; University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, Manitoba; Medical University of Vienna, Vienna, Austria; Melbourne School of Population and Global Health and University of Melbourne, Melbourne, Australia with support from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

Dr. Mark Sinyor, a psychiatrist at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre and the University of Toronto said, “It is important for reporters and media outlets to understand that how they report on suicide can have a real impact across the population. When media reports include resources such as crisis services and messages of hope, it can have a positive impact on the public, and potentially help a person in crisis by reminding them that suicide isn’t the only option and that help is available.”

Scientists examined the relationship between potentially harmful and helpful elements of print and online media reports about suicide. They properly studied 17,000 articles in 13 major publications (including The New York Times) in the Toronto media market and suicide deaths in Toronto from 2011 to 2014. More specifically, they looked for a link between certain types of reporting and suicide deaths within the 7 days after publication.

There were almost 6,367 articles with suicide as the major focus and 947 suicide deaths in Toronto over the same period. A few components were related with expanded suicides, for example, portraying the strategy – particularly in the headline- depicting suicide as inescapable and writing about suicide in big names. Articles about murder-suicides were related with diminished suicides.

They observed that reporting on suicide can have a meaningful impact on suicide deaths and that journalists. Based on that they recommend reported to be careful while considering the specific content of reports before publication.

Dr. Sinyor said, “This study emphasizes the importance of responsible reporting and identifies that relatively few media reports included helpful information such as crisis resources and messages of hope.”

“The overwhelming majority of people who think about suicide ultimately find paths to resilience, and they don’t die by suicide. Suicide is almost always accompanied by treatable mental disorders along with life stress and difficulties coping. We have treatments for each of these problems. There is hope. We continue to work with the media in Canada, who do want to get this right, to help them be aware of the issues so that they can inform the public in a way that is safe.”

In a related commentary, Dr. Ian Colman, a professor at the School of Epidemiology and Public Health, University of Ottawa, Ottawa, Ontario, writes “Journalists have a key role to play in public discourse on current issues facing society. It is very encouraging that discussions about mental health and suicide have become prominent in recent years, and that the stigma attached to mental health is dropping. The media has likely played an important role in this.”

However, he expresses dismay that the study found a few media reports that used recommended practices to prevent suicide. Fewer than one in five articles discussed alternatives to suicide, and less than 2% mentioned community resources for those considering suicide.

“The media have an obligation to report the news, but also have the potential to influence positive change. Responsible reporting can encourage conversations about suicidality, stimulate help-seeking behavior among individuals considering suicide, and make important contributions in the fight against mental health stigma.”

Scientists have reported their study in the journal CMAJ July 30, 2018.