09/10/2013 12:12 EDT | Updated 11/10/2013 05:12 EST

What Makes Suicides Newsworthy?

Is suicide really contagious? Ever since the publication of Johann von Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther in 1774 led to a rash suicides, the existence of the "Werther effect" has been supported by numerous research studies. Well into the 20th century, high-profile suicides involving celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe, Kurt Cobain, and Yukiko Okada have been linked to later deaths believed to have been committed by fans imitating their idols.

Along with celebrity suicides, research has linked copycat deaths to news stories describing specific locations and/or methods of committing suicide that increases the likelihood of vulnerable people killing themselves in the same way. Suicide epidemics linked to places such as Mount Mihara and Aokigahara Forest in Japan, the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, and the Bloor Viaduct in Toronto have persisted despite attempts to curb deaths with improved safety measures. Even the presence of Internet web sites describing suicide methods and "suicide kits" available by mail order can often lead to deaths that might never have occurred otherwise.

In response to concerns about copycat suicides, media agencies in many countries have developed formal guidelines to encourage the responsible reporting of suicides. Despite accusations of censorship, these guidelines are intended to correct popular misconceptions about suicide and to avoid reporting deaths in a sensationalized manner. Although these guidelines are useful to a point, the need to report on high-profile deaths is an ongoing problem for news agencies.

But are some suicides more likely to be reported than others? Media research suggests that suicides are more likely to be reported if they involve unusual circumstances or methods and the kind of suicides likely be reported can vary across countries. A study of suicides reported in Hong Kong found that deaths linked to relationship problems or committed by students were more likely to be reported in the media, often with pictures of the victims. An Austrian media study found that suicides were more likely to be reported if they involved young people or foreigners. Suicides linked to homicides or using relatively unusual methods (including drowning, jumping, or shooting) were also more likely to be reported.

An Australian research study has shown that suicides involving older victims or females tend to be over-reported, as are suicides involving violent methods. The Australian study also showed that suicides tended to fall into three categories:

  • Suicides occurring because "the system" broke down (such as neglect in mental health facilities),

  • Suicides of people in the public eye, i.e. celebrities (including local celebrities),
  • Suicides involving unusual methods.

A new study published in the journal Crisis provides an in-depth look at media reports of suicide and those factors making them more likely to be reported. Conducted by Professor Jane Pirkis and her colleagues at the University of Melbourne in Australia, the study is a follow-up of their previous media study of suicides. Of the 2,161 suicides occurring in Australia in a single year, only 29 were actually reported in the media (1.3 per cent). Of the 390 media reports featuring these suicides, most were newspaper stories with radio and television reports being less common. At least a third of the media reports were of a single case involving two teenage girls who took part in a suicide pact.

Age appeared to be a significant factor in whether a suicide would be reported with suicide by younger people being more likely to be reported (57 per cent of all reported deaths were of people under the age of 29). This was in line with international research but also raised concerns since younger people are more likely to carry out copycat suicides.

Suicides involving "novel" methods such as death by shooting were also more likely to be reported. Again, this reflects national differences since the study focused on Australian suicides and firearms are responsible for more than half of all suicides in the United States. Suicides involving novel or unusual circumstances are also more likely to inspire copycat deaths and media reports need to carefully weigh the public's right to know against the very real danger that vulnerable people might imitate the methods used.

And then there are the suicides occurring in specific locations, including commercial areas, medical/residential facilities, and other institutions which are also more likely to be reported. Deaths occurring in commercial areas are more likely to be witnessed by the public (including jumping from buildings) which makes them especially newsworthy. Unfortunately, publicity over these suicides gives the sites where the suicides happen (which are usually open to the public) a reputation as "suicide sites" and can increase the likelihood of copycat deaths occurring there. This is a particular danger with high-profile deaths.

As for suicides happening in medical facilities or other institutions, they are usually reported as part of a larger story relating to breakdowns in the larger system that they represent, whether it be the health care system, the educational system, or the prison system. Excessive media coverage may motivate other deaths designed to call attention to problems.

Along with concerns about copycat suicides, media stories slanted towards sensational deaths can distort public impressions about the circumstances under which these suicides happen. Since only a tiny percentage of suicides are reported, and those most likely to be unusual cases, they do little to increase awareness of the real dangers associated with suicide and how these deaths might be prevented.

Whenever a new suicide occurs, news agencies face a difficult challenge balancing the public's right to know with the very real danger of inspiring copycat deaths. Though the current media guidelines can help to some extent, those suicides which are most likely to be reported are also the ones most likely to be imitated. Whether it be a celebrity suicide or a death under sufficiently bizarre circumstances that inspires people to copy them, how those deaths can be safely reported continues to be a challenge that responsible journalists need to take seriously.