Advice for the media: Copycats and social contagion
Copycat suicides and media reporting
Suicide is a valid subject for discussion but certain types of suicide reporting are particularly harmful and can act as a catalyst to influence the behaviour of people who are already vulnerable. Over 60 research articles have looked at the issue of media reporting of suicide and found that it can lead to imitative behaviours3.
- An episode of a popular TV drama contained a storyline about a deliberate self-poisoning with paracetamol. Researchers interviewed patients who attended accident and emergency departments and psychiatric services and found that 20% said the programme had influenced their decision to take an overdose. Self-poisoning increased by 17% in the week following the broadcast and by 9% in the second week4.
- A newspaper report in Hong Kong included a detailed description of a person who died by suicide involving the method of burning charcoal in a confined space. Within three years there was a dramatic increase in suicides using this method, with the number of deaths rising from 0% to 10%5.
- There has been an increase in the number of intentional antifreeze poisonings reported to the British National Poisons Information Service on two separate occasions, both of which followed reports on this method in the national media. The expected rate of self-poisoning by this method is between one and three per month. After the report of an inquest into a suicide using this method appeared in the national media, this rose to six cases in one month and on a separate occasion when the method was portrayed in a popular hospital drama, the rate for that month leapt to nine6.
- A German television series, ‘Death of a student’, depicted the railway suicide of a young man at the start of each episode. A 175% rise in railway suicides occurred in young people aged 15-19 years old both during and after the series7. This effect was repeated when the series was shown again some years later.
- Studies in Vienna and Toronto found that voluntary restrictions on newspaper reporting of subway suicides resulted in a 75% decrease in suicides by this method.
- A study following the death of singer Kurt Cobain by suicide found that there was not an overall increase in suicides rates in his home town of Seattle, believed to be because reporting differentiated strongly between the brilliance of his life achievements and the wastefulness of his death. It may have also helped that media coverage discussed risk factors and identified sources of help for people experiencing suicidal feelings. Summary Research suggests that media portrayal can influence suicidal behaviour and this may result in an overall increase in suicide and/or an increase in uses of particular methods.
Perhaps the most important guiding principle for all journalists reporting suicide is to consider the vulnerable reader who might be in crisis when they see the story. We need to ask ourselves whether our coverage will make it more likely that they will attempt to take their lives or more likely that they will seek help. These excellent guidelines can help us make the right decisions.
Stephen Pritchard, Readers’ Editor, The Observer, President of the Organisation of News Ombudsmen
People bereaved by suicide are themselves at increased risk of suicide or self-harm10, 11, 12. This may be because of the inherent distress associated with bereavement. It is also generally recognised that one suicide may lead to several others in a limited time span and geographic area13, 14.
The effect, known as ‘clustering’ of suicides, refers to a number of completed or attempted suicides which occur closer together chronologically and geographically than would be expected statistically for the community in question. This appears to particularly affect young and vulnerable people15, 16.
One factor which may lead to suicide ‘clustering’ is a phenomenon known as ‘social contagion’. This is the concept that a combination of grief, over-identification and fixation on suicide leads to an increase in suicidal behaviour amongst a group of people who have been exposed to a suicide. The media plays an important part in social contagion as it is a means of transmitting or moderating the information which may lead to contagion.
4 Hawton,K., S.Simkin, Deeks J.J.,et al.1999. Effects of a drug overdose in a television drama on presentations to hospital for self poisoning: time series and questionnaire study. Br.Med.J.318:972–977.
6 Veysey MJ, Kamanyire R, Volans GN. Effects of drug overdose in television drama on presentation for self-poisoning. Antifreeze poisonings give more insight into copycat behaviour [letter]. British Medical Journal 1999;319(7217):1131.