Media Needs Safer Reporting on Suicide: Experts
Feb. 24, 2022 — How should the media safely report on suicide?
The news of Miss USA 2019 Cheslie Kryst’s untimely death by suicide on Jan. 30 stunned the world. Scrolling through breaking news headlines and social media feeds, many questioned how an accomplished lawyer, TV host, and social activist could have taken her own life at age 30.
Comments expressing condolences and well wishes to her family and friends poured in, along with reminders to always check in on friends and family members.
But for a certain group of people, headlines and social media posts with graphic details about Kryst’s death stirred up feelings of hopelessness and despair of their own.
“While most people will ingest these things without having any kind of problem in relation to it, some small group of vulnerable people might be impacted in ways that are dangerous, even leading to suicide contagion,” says Victor Schwartz, MD, a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at New York University School of Medicine.
Suicide contagion is “the process by which one or more suicides increase the risk of suicidal behavior in others,” according to the American Association of Suicidology.
Media coverage of a death by suicide plays a critical role in vulnerable people’s safety after such news, says Madelyn S. Gould, PhD, a professor of psychiatry at Columbia University Irving Medical Center in New York.
“There’s been a myriad of research in this area, and it’s clear that there’s a real impact of the media on subsequent suicides, depending on how the story is shaped, how headlines are shaped, and the pictures that are included in the article,” she says. “It could be the difference between life and death for a vulnerable person who gets triggered by the way the story was written.” And news of celebrity suicides can lead to particularly harmful outcomes, Gould says.
“They [at-risk people] may have been identifying with that celebrity for years or envision a perfect life. ‘How could that person be vulnerable to suicide?’” she says. “For another vulnerable person, it can make them feel even more hopeless about the situation.”
Shaping the story to offer hope to those who may be struggling with suicidal thoughts, as well as sharing helpful resources, can make a huge difference, suicide prevention experts say.
“Is it a story about hope and healing and encouraging health coping strategies, or is it glorification of someone’s death by suicide?” Gould says.
“If the story presents suicide as a ‘coping mechanism,’ then the greater number of those types of stories, unfortunately, the greater likelihood that there will be subsequent deaths by suicide.”
WebMD spoke to suicide prevention experts who analyzed media outlets’ coverage of Kryst’s death. Read on for a look at how they say safe reporting practices could save lives.
How to Report on Suicide
Many suicide prevention organizations — such as the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, American Association of Suicidology, and World Health Organization — have published guidelines on safe reporting strategies.
One of the most universal principles is not reporting the method by which the suicide took place.
Information about location and time, and other sensitive material, like photos, videos, or mention of suicide notes, should also be largely avoided.
“Things like method or very graphic details about someone’s death from suicide can have a tendency to provide a way for people to identify with that death,” says Chris Maxwell, director of public relations and media at the American Association of Suicidology.
It’s also important to steer clear of overly emotional or dramatic language when reporting on deaths by suicide, which can run counter to certain aspects of journalism, says Schwartz.
“The fundamental problem with reporting on celebrity suicide is that if you look at the guidelines for safe reporting, they’re almost exactly the opposite of what journalists are typically trained to do,” he says. “We’re trying to have it not be incendiary, exciting, interesting, or romantic.” The experts help us analyze different outlets’ headlines and reporting of Kryst’s death to better understand how media can cover suicide safely and effectively.
Media Coverage of Cheslie Kryst’s Death
“That’s fairly objective,” Maxwell says. “At least in the headline or the subheading, there’s not necessarily a method. Suicide isn’t directly mentioned.”
“In mentioning suicide in general, we have to have a balance. It’s OK to say someone dies by suicide without necessarily talking about a method.”
“They immediately say she jumped to her death and tell us from where, and then describe the building, so they are describing the actual suicide and the means to suicide,” Schwartz says.
“Journalists are walking a kind of tightrope here, because if you present this like it’s a clinical research paper, people could accuse you of being heartless. But you don’t have to open up the article with describing how she jumped from the 29th floor of a particular building and what time.”
“I would absolutely not include anything about jumping from a high-rise,” Maxwell says. “It’s outside of any sort of guidelines or recommendations.”
“These pictures are totally irresponsible, with no opportunity to be talking about treatment for depression or calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline — which will soon be accessed by calling, chatting or texting 988 — folks can call, chat, or text if they are worried about someone else or if they are suicidal themselves,” Gould says.
“’Her body was found in a Manhattan neighborhood near Times Square’ — that’s an interesting way to phrase it,” says Maxwell.
“I can’t imagine that adding anything to the story. Saying that she died, and that she accomplished all these things, seems much more core to the story and much more effective at talking about who she was. That’s what we should be focusing on.”
Social Media Considerations
Social media posts about deaths by suicide can be tricky, since these platforms also serve as a space for healing and unity between those who have been affected by suicide, says Dimple Patel, PsyD, a therapist and board member of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s Illinois chapter.
“I’ve met so many people on Instagram, TikTok, and Facebook who I’ve connected through shared experience of losing someone or being in that grief process,” says Patel, who lost her mother to suicide in 2011.
“There is a form of community there for those who are struggling. They can connect with people who are feeling the same way.”
But problems can also arise, especially if posts aren’t closely monitored, which ultimately reflects the “pros and cons of social media,” says Aneri Pattani, a Kaiser Health News reporter and 2021 Bloomberg fellow at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
“You have the ability to talk about an issue that is often stigmatized and that is not talked about, which can also be detrimental,” Pattani says. “So, in some ways, that’s great that it brings the conversation forward like that and to people on a platform where they might be more comfortable engaging with it.”
“At the same time, you have no idea when you put something on social media who it’s going to reach and what state they’re going to be in.”
One potential way to promote safety for vulnerable people could be using “trigger warnings” in posts about suicide, along with including information on resources like the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and the Crisis Text Line.
“As someone is seeing your story or call out, if they are in a vulnerable position, they are also finding the resources right there and then,” Pattani says.
Having advocates within journalism promoting safe reporting practices through training and dialogue with colleagues can be a big part of bringing about change, says Gould.
And some journalists in the field have already begun this work.
Pattani and Holly Wilcox, PhD, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, are joining forces with Johns Hopkins and the Bloomberg American Health Initiative to create a free course for journalists that teaches responsible reporting practices.
The course, which will be available on Coursera, will focus on suicide as a public health issue and will share research on how media reporting can affect suicide rates.
It will also offer practical tips for reporting on suicide, such as how to interview sources sensitively, along with information on pitching, editing, and producing stories on various formats, including video and audio, Pattani says.
The course is expected to be made public this summer.
“We’re hoping we can get working journalists, as well as high school and college journalists who are learning, to use this course, so they have the skills and knowledge when they’re starting off in the field about how to report on this issue,” says Pattani.
But reporters aren’t the only ones who could greatly benefit from these types of resources, according to Schwartz.
“A lot of mental health professionals are simply not aware of these media issues and that how mental health professionals speak to the media about suicide matters also,” says Schwartz. “The goal of these efforts is not to tell journalists that they are bad people. We want to educate people who need to be educated on both fronts about these issues.”