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Media coverage of celebrity suicides linked to ‘meaningful’ rise in suicide rates

The upsurge in such “copycat” suicides is particularly strong when news stories describe the suicide method used by the celebrity, the review found.

Robin Williams Oscar Memorial
A study found that U.S. newspapers only “moderately adhered” to the guidelines when writing about Robin Williams' suicide.
REUTERS/Mike Blake

Media reporting of celebrity suicides, especially when the reporting sensationalizes the deaths, is associated with an increase in suicide rates among the general public, according to a major new review of previous research on the topic.

The upsurge in such “copycat” suicides is particularly strong when news stories describe the suicide method used by the celebrity, the review also found.

The study’s authors — an international team of researchers led by Thomas Niederkrotenthaler, head of Suicide Research and Mental Health Promotion at the Medical University of Vienna — say their findings underscore the need for more responsible reporting by the media. Journalists and their editors “must consider more carefully the costs to population health of sensationalist, detailed report of these tragic deaths,” the researchers conclude.

The review was published late last week in The BMJ (formerly known as the British Medical Journal).

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Why the review was done

As background information in the review points out, news reporting of suicides has increased significantly in recent decades, and a number of studies have suggested that suicide rates spike upward after widespread media coverage of a celebrity suicide.

This phenomenon is known as the Werther effect, which takes its name from the protagonist in Wolfgang von Goethe’s 1774 novel, “The Sorrows of Young Werther,” who ends up killing himself. Immediately after the novel was published, suicides of young men in Germany and elsewhere in Europe reportedly rose dramatically.

To help counter such “suicide contagion,” the World Health Organization and mental health and suicide prevention organizations around the world have issued guidelines for reporters on how to write about suicides responsibly. Those guidelines include instructions about not glorifying the suicide, not reporting on it repeatedly and not describing the specific suicide method used. They also emphasize that news stories should include information on where and how readers can seek help for suicidal thoughts.

But the guidelines are not always fully followed. The 2014 suicide of actor and comedian Robin Williams is a case in point. A study found that U.S. newspapers only “moderately adhered” to the guidelines when writing about his suicide. Research also revealed that in the five months after Williams’ death, the suicide rate in the United States climbed by 10 percent — about 1,800 additional deaths. The highest number of unexpected suicides during that period was among men, especially those aged 30 to 44. There was also a 32 percent increase in suicides by the method used by Williams. By comparison, other methods of suicide rose by only 3 percent.

Not all studies have shown clear evidence of the Werther effect, however. As a result, “[i]n several countries that have implemented media guidelines, journalists and media professionals have pushed back, arguing that the body of evidence is not compelling enough to warrant changes to the way suicide is reported,” write Niederkrotenthaler and his colleagues.

They decided to undertake the current review to address that knowledge gap.

What the study found

For the review, the researchers analyzed the results of 20 previous studies. Each study had compared suicide rates at one point before and up to two months after media reports of a celebrity suicide. Some of the studies also looked at whether general reporting of suicide affected suicide rates.

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When all the data was considered together, the risk of suicide increased by 13 percent, on average, in the month or two that followed initial media reporting on the suicide of a celebrity.

“[That’s] quite a considerable meaningful increase in suicide rates, considering that the global financial crisis of 2008-2009 was associated with a 6 percent increase in suicides,” says Niederkrotenthaler in a video released with the study.

When the method of suicide used by the celebrity was reported in the press, deaths by that method increased by 30 percent, on average.

“Reporting of deaths of celebrities by suicide appears to have made a meaningful impact on total suicides in the general population,” Niederkrotenthaler and his colleagues conclude in their paper. “The effect was larger for increases by the same method as used by the celebrity.”

General reporting about the issue of suicide (which included reporting on suicide prevention) was not found to be associated with an increase in the suicide rate, although the researchers say that can’t rule out that possibility for certain kinds of reporting.

Limitations and implications

This review has important limitations. Most notably, all the studies analyzed were observational, which means they can’t prove that it was the media coverage that led to the increase in suicide rates.

Still, Niederkrotenthaler and his colleagues say their review offers the best evidence to date on the topic. They also say that media outlets should take steps to ensure they adhere to current guidelines for reporting on suicide.

“Celebrity deaths can draw lots of coverage which can significantly increase the risk of imitational suicides,” writes epidemiologist David Gunnel and medical sociologist Lucy Biddle of Bristol University, in an editorial that accompanies the study. “While freedom of the press is one of the fundamental pillars of a democratic society, easy access to online information presents particular hazards. People can now read a news story about a method specific death by suicide, and then learn how to use that method from sites such as Wikipedia.”

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“Journalists, news editors, and social media platforms must be made to consider more carefully the costs to population health, and impacts on families and friends, of sensationalist, detailed reporting of these tragic deaths,” they add.

FMI: You can read the review on The BMJ’s website.

If you or anyone you know are having thoughts about suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).