Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Newspapers Can Do More to Change Public Perception of Suicide, Report Suggests

Regional and national newspapers in the United States are falling short of meeting guidelines for reporting on suicide deaths, suggests a report in JAMA Network Open. An analysis of coverage following the deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain in June 2018 in print newspapers with a minimum circulation of 200,000 shows that the publications adhered to only about half of the national recommendations for reporting on suicide, such as avoiding details of lethal means or use of a sensational headline.

“News media coverage of suicide is associated with an increased risk of subsequent suicides, with the strongest associations following newspaper reporting of celebrity suicides,” wrote Arielle H. Sheftall, Ph.D., of the Ohio State University College of Medicine and colleagues. To educate the media about these risks, leading experts in suicide prevention, public health, and media from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, Annenberg Public Policy Center, Columbia University Department of Psychiatry, government agencies, and more in 2001 published the guideline “Recommendations for Reporting on Suicide.”

“Risk of additional suicides increases when the story explicitly describes the suicide method, uses dramatic/graphic headlines or images, and repeated/extensive coverage sensationalizes or glamorizes a death,” according to this document. “Covering suicide carefully, even briefly, can change public misperceptions and correct myths, which can encourage those who are vulnerable or at risk to seek help.”

Sheftall and colleagues analyzed the coverage of the deaths of Spade and Bourdain in the following newspapers: The Chicago Tribune, Denver Post, Houston Chronicle, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Seattle Times, Tampa Bay Times, USA Today, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post. Specifically, the authors assessed guideline adherence by the newspapers in the days following the deaths using 14 items derived from “Recommendations for Reporting on Suicide.” These items included avoiding details of notes left behind or location of death, providing information about warning signs of or risk factors for suicide, and listing the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline phone number. The researchers scored the articles by adherence to each guideline (1 for yes; 0 for no; total score: 14).

Overall, the newspapers adhered to a mean of 7.4 of the 14 specific guidelines; none of the newspapers adhered to 80% of the specific guidelines. All of the newspapers adhered to the two following guidelines: “avoided single-cause explanation of suicide death” and “avoided referring to suicide as a growing problem, epidemic, or skyrocketing.” In contrast, none followed recommendations to “share a hopeful message that suicide is preventable” or to “convey that suicidal behaviors can be reduced with mental health support and treatment,” according to the authors.

The findings point to “widespread opportunities for improvement,” Sheftall and colleagues wrote. They noted that steps taken in Canada in April 2014 to establish reporting guidelines for suicide and create checklists for journalists to promote adherence were associated with increased adherence to these guidelines following the death of Robin Williams by suicide in August 2014. “A collaboration between U.S. media staff, governmental agencies, and other stakeholders when updating and disseminating the recommended reporting guidelines for suicide may increase adherence, which in turn might reduce preventable harm,” they concluded.

For related information, see the Psychiatric News article “Preparing for a Sequel: ‘13 Reasons Why’ and Suicide Contagion” by Michael Fadus, M.D., and the Psychiatric Services article “Increases in Demand for Crisis and Other Suicide Prevention Services After a Celebrity Suicide.”

(Image: iStock/artisteer)

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