Media Guidelines for School Administrators Who May Interact with Reporters about Youth Suicide

There is Scientific Basis for Concern

Research has demonstrated potentially harmful effects of some types of news coverage about suicide on vulnerable individuals in the community.  There is evidence of an increase in suicidal behavior, especially among youth, following prominent news coverage of a suicide.  This behavior may result in multiple suicide attempts and completions.  It is referred to as suicide copycat behavior.  It is very important to address this concern with representatives of the media and to describe how responsible reporting can help reduce the risk of copycat suicides.

Media reports should neither sensationalize nor normalize suicide. Reporting should be concise and factual to minimize the likelihood of copycat behavior.  Reports of suicide should not be graphic in the details of the method, and never use the phrase "a successful suicide".  Use of the term “completed suicide” is to be discouraged. (See Language Describing Suicidal Behavior for more information) Media accounts can actually serve as a preventive tool if the reporting ends with published hotline phone numbers and nearby counseling resources.  Exploration of these themes is given below.

Suicide is a Tragedy, It will be Reported

The mission of a news organization is to report information on events in the community.  If a suicide is considered newsworthy, it will probably be reported.  Efforts to prevent news coverage may not be effective; the goal should be to assist news professionals to report responsibly and accurately.

"No Comment" is Not Productive

Refusing to speak with the media will not prevent coverage of a suicide.  Use a media request for information as an opportunity to influence the contents of the story.  Always provide information on state and local resources for suicide prevention and crisis intervention and other available services.

Responsible News Coverage May Help Prevent Suicide

It is not news coverage per se, but certain types of coverage, which promotes copycat suicides.  Explain the potential for copycat suicides associated with certain types of reports and suggest ways to minimize this risk.  Encourage news reporters to provide information that increases public awareness of risk factors, warning signs, and possible actions to help a suicidal person.  Emphasize the importance of listing available community resources for individuals at-risk and describing what is being done to promote safety for vulnerable individuals in the aftermath of a suicide.  Provide relevant hotline number(s) and ask that they be published.  Encourage news stories that portray individuals who have found positive ways of coping with their difficult situations.

Aspects of News Coverage that May Promote Copycat Suicides

Although scientific research in this area is not complete, preliminary findings indicate that the likelihood of copycat suicides may be increased by the following actions:

Presenting Simplistic Explanations for Suicide

Suicide is never the result of a single factor or event; it usually results from the complex interaction of many factors.  Although a final precipitating event may have occurred, it is unlikely that it was the sole cause of the suicide.  Most persons who die by suicide have had a history of problems that may not have been reported during the aftermath of the suicide.  A detailed description is not necessary, but acknowledgment of the complexity of suicidal behavior is recommended.

Engaging in Repetitive, Prominent or Excessive Reporting of Suicide

Repetitive or prominent coverage of a suicide tends to promote and maintain a preoccupation with suicide among at-risk persons.  This preoccupation has been linked to copycat suicides.

Providing Sensational Coverage of Suicide

Sensational news coverage of a suicide also heightens the general publics’ preoccupation with suicide.  This reaction is associated with the development of suicide copycat behaviors.  Providing the morbid details of a suicide increases sensationalism.  Reporting the story prominently and using dramatic photographs related to the suicide (e.g., photographs of the funeral, the deceased person’s bedroom, or the site of the suicide) also increase the risk of copycat suicides.

Reporting "How-To" Descriptions of Suicide

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

Presenting Suicide as a Tool for Accomplishing Certain Ends

Suicide is usually the rare act of a troubled person.  Presenting suicide as a way of coping with personal problems (e.g., the break-up of a relationship or retaliation against discipline) may suggest to at-risk persons that suicide is a reasonable solution. 

Glorifying Suicide or Persons Who Die By Suicide

Reports of community expressions of grief (e.g., public eulogies, flying flags at half-mast, and erecting permanent public memorials) should not be overemphasized.  Such actions may contribute to copycat suicide by suggesting to susceptible persons that society is honoring the suicidal behavior of the deceased person, rather than mourning the person’s death.

Focusing Only on the Suicide Completer’s Positive Characteristics

Empathy for family and friends often leads to a focus on reporting only the positive aspects of a suicide completer’s life.  As a result, statements praising the deceased person are often repeated in the news.  Family members, friends or teachers may be quoted as saying the deceased person “was a great kid” or “had a bright future.”  When these statements are not accompanied by acknowledgement that the deceased person had problems, however, suicide may appear attractive to other at-risk persons, especially those who rarely receive positive reinforcement.

 

Adapted from MMWR, Vol. 43/No. RR-6, Suicide and the Reporting of Suicide: Recommendations from a National Workshop