The Media’s Influence on Suicide

Trigger Warning: This piece discusses suicide, self harm, mental illness, and death. Please proceed with caution if you are triggered by any of these topics.

According to the CDC Mortality Database, in 2014 alone, 42,704 Americans committed suicide.

That sounds like a fake number, right? Well, it’s not. Being the tenth-largest cause of death in the US, suicide is an epidemic affecting individuals of all demographics. That said, only a handful of these deaths are ever reported in the media. But why?

Maybe it’s because there’s simply too many to keep track of, but maybe it’s just because the media has no guidelines for how to safely report on suicide.

At the first annual Higher Education Suicide Prevention Conference in Philadelphia in early 2016, which I was lucky enough to attend as part of the student journalist track, there was much debate over how to do this job the right way. Dr. Daniel Reidenberg, a psychologist and also the executive director of SAVE (Suicide Awareness Voices of Education), as well as the US representative for the International Association of Suicide Prevention, says that journalists need to be super careful about how they report on suicides. In his presentation at the conference, he broke down what he felt should and should not be included in a story following someone’s death, and while some agreed, many did not.

If Dr. Reidenberg could have journalists report on suicide the way he wanted, there would be no mention of the method used, the location, or any “unnecessary” detail that may negatively influence the audience, essentially excluding everything that would make up any other story about a death. But what else is there to write about if we can’t be open about what actually happened?

Dr. Reidenberg proposed that readers are incredibly susceptible to the power of suggestion, and that too much detail about a suicide can cause somewhat of a domino effect. Someone with suicidal thoughts or depression might read a story about another suicide, and potentially be convinced to take the same route. He referred to various celebrity suicides, such as Marilyn Monroe, and more recently, Robin Williams, and showed extensive research reflecting a drastic increase in suicides following the announcements of those initial deaths.

As much as I want to disagree with Dr. Reidenberg and say that he doesn’t give people enough credit, he’s not completely wrong. Based on research from the New England Journal of Medicine, strict regulations being put on how the media reports on suicide did actually make a difference. For example, in the late 1980s, there was a string of individuals committing suicide by way of the Vienna subway tracks, and the implementation of guidelines on how to report these incidents did actually cause a decrease. In the first six months of 1987, nine people completed suicide by jumping on to the subway tracks. In the second six months, after the media altered its methods of reporting, that number dropped to just two people.

On the other end of the spectrum of opinion, acclaimed journalist and author Stephen Fried feels that journalists actually aren’t reporting nearly enough on suicide. Between you and me, I found myself agreeing with Mr. Fried much more than I did Dr. Reidenberg. By only reporting on the particularly dramatic pieces, such as celebrity suicides or public suicides, we are unintentionally sensationalizing the hell out of suicide simply by trying not to. Because of the societal stigma against the discussion and acknowledgment of mental health, it is so suppressed to the point of pretending it’s not even there.

I was fortunate enough to interview Mr. Fried on this subject a few months after the conference, and he told me that he felt as though journalists are still far from even having a productive discussion about day-to-day reporting on suicide just because there is no day-to-day reporting on suicide at this point in time. He continues, “in most cases, there’s this underlying issue that you don’t talk about [suicide], unless somebody else already did, so then you have to cover it. If a student died any other way, that would be a first-day news story … it’s a very unprocessed debate that we have in the heat of the moment and rarely have outside of the heat of the moment.”

Fried makes a good point. When do we ever talk about suicide when it’s not absolutely urgent and unavoidable? If someone is killed, it is reported on the day it happens. If someone kills themselves, it becomes an issue of whether or not it should be reported on, when it shouldn’t even be a question.

There are many members of the media that feel there is a dire need to change the way suicides are covered, and I am absolutely part of that demographic. There’s been a struggle to find a middle ground between withholding information to protect the audience and revealing too much and putting the audience at risk. Some have started to consider disclaimers like trigger warnings to be that middle ground. I think trigger warnings can be widely beneficial to those who are triggered by mentions of suicide and self harm. I mean, I put one on this very article for a reason. On the other hand, there are some downsides to trigger warnings in the eyes of journalists.

Fried stated that he personally would never use trigger warnings as they are essentially designed to make people not want to read something on the off chance it will leave a negative impact on them. There are benefits, of course, because they protect those who need to be prepared before they experience something potentially traumatic or triggering, but the last thing journalists want to do is prevent someone for getting informed or involved. It is my duty as a journalist to inform the public, and it goes against a journalist’s nature to write something at the beginning of their work that might stop someone from reading.

That said, in a psychologist’s eyes, trigger warnings can and should be used for the protection of the reader. Ellie Pelosi, a senior psychology student at Temple University, feels that they are absolutely necessary when writing about things like suicide because they simply alert readers to graphic or triggering content, without censoring the content in any way.

I think that based on that interpretation of trigger warnings, they are our safest bet in terms of a middle ground, at least until we find a better solution. The warning protects readers from being potentially negatively influenced, which satisfies Dr. Reidenberg’s concern, but it also allows journalists to report on suicide safely and responsibly, satisfying Mr. Fried’s.  

It is clear that there is still a long and complicated discussion to be had about the proper etiquette of reporting on suicide. There are tons of logical theories from both sides of the issue that need to be considered, and it will take journalists, psychologists, and readers on both sides to effectively determine an efficient and healthy method of reporting on suicide and mental illness.

If you or someone you know is struggling with their mental health, including depression or thoughts of self harm or suicide, please contact the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK. You matter.