Guidelines Given for Suicide Coverage

Aug. 9, 2001 -- Avoiding sensational coverage of suicides can prevent copycat suicides, a new federally endorsed guide for the media says.

U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher, along with academics and suicide experts today issued recommendations calling on the media not to give graphic details about suicides, and not to portray them as heroic or romantic or present them as inexplicable acts of healthy people.

The new guide, written by the Pennsylvania-based Annenberg Public Policy Center, calls on the media to report on suicide victims' problems — such as asking whether the victims ever had treatment for depression or problems with substance abuse.

"The bottom line is we have an opportunity to prevent suicides," Satcher said. "The idea is to make clear that 90 percent of [people who commit] suicides are suffering from mental illness."

Thirty thousand Americans kill themselves every year, and 760,000 attempt it, according to national statistics.

"We're not saying don't cover it," Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Center, told The Associated Press. "But there are vulnerable individuals who read and watch news and might be affected by the way in which a suicide is covered."

Contagion

The researchers said the way the media reports on suicides can influence other vulnerable people to take their own lives — a phenomenon referred to as "contagion."

The guide's authors studied hundreds of recent newspaper stories on suicide, and interviewed reporters and editors about the coverage. However, they found the reporters and editors to be generally skeptical about contagion, so they offered an example: In the mid-1980s, a series of people in Vienna committed suicide by jumping in front of subway trains. Media coverage was extensive and dramatic. After a campaign to educate reporters about copycat suicides, the number of subway deaths dropped by 80 percent, the authors said.

The president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors welcomed the guide's recommendations, and told The Associated Press that they should be a part of training sessions for reporters and editors.

"It's a classic case of attempting to put ethics to work in practical situations," said Oppel, who is also editor of the Austin (Texas) American-Statesman.

Examples

Based on media coverage from prominent national newspapers, Jamieson gave some other examples of suicide coverage aspects that might have been rethought.

From The New York Times came the headline, "Eighth Grade Sweethearts In Suicide Pact."

"Romantizing the act or making it a noble act increases the likelihood of imitation," Jamieson told ABCNEWS.

From The Chicago Sun-Times came, "Bullet Ends Cancer Fight."

"The suggestion," Jamieson said, is that "if you have cancer and you have pain associated with cancer, the appropriate response is suicide."

Television news coverage also came in for some scrutiny. One example described the method of death, which the study says can serve as a road map for others.

ABCNEWS' Deb Amos in New York, and Rebecca Cooper and Pam Coulter in Washington, contributed to this report.