There’s good evidence that media reporting of suicide can have an influence on the likelihood of further suicides, something known as the ‘copycat suicide effect’. In light of this, a new study examined what makes a suicide likely to newsworthy and whether media reporting reflects the actual demographics of people who kill themselves.
The researchers, led by psychologist Thomas Niederkrotenthaler, looked at all 2005 press reports of suicides in the Austria and compared them to the national suicide statistics.
Additionally, the details of all Austrian suicides are recorded in a national database but not all get reported in the media. This allowed the researchers to see which characteristics of a suicide made it most likely that it would get written about in the press.
It turns out that suicides involving murder or murder attempt were over-represented in the media whereas reporting on mental disorders was under-represented.
In terms of which attributes made a media report more likely, younger people who killed themselves were more likely to hit the headlines, as were foreign citizens.
While hanging is the most common method of suicide in Austria, these cases were under-reported, while drowning, jumping, shooting and unusual methods were more likely to make the papers.
Media reporting of suicide is a serious public health issue because numerous studies, most recently in 2006, have found that these news reports are likely to increase the suicide rate.
For this reason, there are guidelines for journalists writing about suicide, although I sure you can remember cases high profile cases where the guidelines get ditched and the more sensationalist angles get the media focus.