Health

Local Media Encouraged to Cover Suicide Responsibly

“Are we covering the story right?”

KPBS reporter Kenny Goldberg posed this question to about 60 local reporters, journalism students and prevention experts who attended a forum last week about media reports on suicide and how coverage could lead to suicide contagion or “copycat” incidents.

 

The moderator’s question got a “yes” and a “no” response from Anara Guard and Teresa Ly, researchers from the Education Development Center who have analyzed media coverage of suicide cases throughout California. They were part of a panel of five suicide prevention experts that included Alfredo Aguirre, director of County Behavioral Health Services.

The researchers presented their findings at the request of the San Diego Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and the San Diego County Suicide Prevention Council, funded by the County Health and Human Services Agency.

The two entities have joined efforts to change the way local media covers suicide. Their goal is to avoid suicide contagion and encourage people to seek help.

Research studies have shown that certain types of news coverage can increase the likelihood of suicide in vulnerable individuals. The risk of additional suicides increases when stories explicitly describe the suicide method, use dramatic or graphic headlines and images, and repeated and extensive coverage.

Their research revealed some positive and some not so great news.

“Most news items avoided sensational language and that is a step in the right direction,” said Guard.

Among their findings:

  • Less than 10 percent of stories included resources where people could get help
  • Half of newspapers and 25 percent of TV coverage indicated risk factors or warning signs of suicide
  • Very few interviewed suicide prevention experts and spoke to law enforcement and neighbors instead
  • Half of newspapers and one quarter of TV reports provided too many details about the incidents and the manner in which the person ended their life

The researchers acknowledged San Diego media is doing a much better job of covering the issue of suicide. Guard and Ly analyzed media coverage of the Junior Seau suicide and determined “the media handled it very well under extreme conditions and a lot of the coverage was appropriate.”

However, Guard emphatically questioned some local media outlet’s decision to publish Seau’s full autopsy report.

“Why would you do that? What is the public good in doing it?” she objected.

The panel also encouraged local media to try to make these changes in their coverage of suicide:

  • Provide suicide prevention resources
  • Discuss warning signs and risk factors of suicide
  • Quote suicide prevention experts
  • Avoid using sensational language or over-simplifying the issue
  • Avoid information about the method of suicide

“We have seen some progress in the way media reports on suicide,” said Aguirre, who added that media and suicide experts should work together to help prevent suicides.

For more information and resources on suicide, visit It’s Up to Us. Help is also available by calling the County’s Access and Crisis Line at (888) 724-7240 at any time.

José A. Álvarez is a communications specialist with the County of San Diego Communications Office. Contact