New Guidelines Developed to Promote Responsible Media Coverage of Suicides
From 2000 to 2004, the Annenberg School for Communication's Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania conducted research on whether media coverage of suicides encourages more suicides, disseminated newly developed guidelines for responsible media coverage of suicides and evaluated the guidelines' effectiveness.
More than 6,500 reporters, editors and activists who deal with the media received copies of Reporting on Suicide: Recommendations for the Media. The Annenberg Center created a Web site, hosted by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, that contained the guidelines and other resources for journalists. It is no longer active.
The findings from this project debunk myths about when suicides occur the timing turns out not to be holiday-heavy, according to RWJF Program Officer Joe Marx. He notes that the findings also show a strong connection with mental illness and substance abuse.
The research found that:
- Articles linking the end-of-the-year holidays to suicide were common, despite factual evidence that suicide is lower at the end of the year.
- There is evidence of a change in reporting practices following the release of the new media guidelines.
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) supported this work with two grants totaling $375,000.
Suicide was the eighth leading cause of death in the United States in 1997, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and was the third leading cause of death for adolescents and young adults, according to the National Adolescent Health Information Center.
A review by the Annenberg Public Policy Center found a number of studies showing that certain types of news coverage of suicides can influence individuals to take their lives by inadvertently romanticizing suicide or idealizing those who take their own lives; giving detailed descriptions or pictures of the method used or the location or site of a suicide; or presenting suicide as the inexplicable act of an otherwise healthy or high-achieving person, when most victims suffer significant and often untreated psychiatric illness at the time of their death. In 1999, The Surgeon General's Call to Action to Prevent Suicide report cited inappropriate media representations of suicide as a risk factor for influencing individuals who are vulnerable to attempting suicide.
In 1994, the CDC issued press guidelines for media coverage of suicides; the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention released similar press guidelines. However, the effectiveness of these guidelines was unknown and untested. In 2001, the United States Department of Health and Human Services, along with the Surgeon General, released its National Strategy for Suicide Prevention, calling for improved reporting in the news media.
Researchers at the Annenberg Center used their first RWJF grant (ID# 039573) to determine whether certain types of press coverage of suicide encourage more suicides. They examined reporting practices in the New York Times over three years of reporting (1990, 1995 and 1999) and in nine of the 10 largest-circulation newspapers in the country in 1998. (See Appendix 1 for a list of the newspapers studied.)
To study reporters' knowledge of the CDC guidelines, the researchers conducted interviews with 59 reporters and 15 editors who had worked on suicide stories at the 100 largest-circulation newspapers in 1999 and 2000. The project team also analyzed a variety of news and fictional media in six cities during the period from July 1 to October 31, 1993, in order to examine the influence of the media on suicide. Finally, the researchers investigated reporting practices related to the holiday suicide myth (the untrue belief that suicides increase around the holidays) by examining print stories from 1999 to 2000.
While conducting their research, the project team found that the existing guidelines from the CDC and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention were based on inadequate research and were contradictory, inconsistent and unclear. Interviews with editors revealed that many journalists would welcome new, research-based reporting guidelines.
In response to these findings, the Annenberg Public Policy Center and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention convened a national panel of experts in behavioral science, suicide and the media to reexamine the issue of suicide coverage and draft new guidelines. The Annenberg project team reviewed the proposed consensus guidelines with editors and reporters in the field.
A partnership of public and private organizations, including the CDC and several federal agencies (see Appendix 2 for a complete list) released the new guidelines, Reporting on Suicide: Recommendations for the Media, in August 2001. The Annenberg Center created a Web site, hosted by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, that contained the guidelines and other resources for journalists. It is no longer active. RWJF funding did not support any of the Annenberg Center's work on developing Reporting on Suicide: Recommendations for the Media.
The new recommendations outline some of the causes of suicide and document the negative effect of certain types of reporting. The aim of the recommendations is not to discourage the reporting of suicide, but to use the opportunity to educate the public about treatment and prevention options and to dispel myths about suicide that discourage potential victims from seeking help.
The recommendations encourage the news media to avoid prominent placement of the story, sensational headlines that will draw undue attention to the act, and overly detailed descriptions of the method. They suggest that articles about suicide deaths note that psychiatric disorders precede up to 90 percent of self-inflicted deaths, and that these conditions are often treatable. They recommend publication of articles directing readers to sources of help in their community.
RWJF awarded a second grant (ID# 042328) to the Annenberg Center to disseminate Reporting on Suicide: Recommendations for the Media and evaluate the effect of the recommendations. For this evaluation, researchers examined coverage of suicides in 2003 by the New York Times, and compared it to the reporting practices examined under the initial grant. They also examined the work of 90 individual reporters, comparing their coverage of suicides before and after receiving the guidelines.
- More than 6,500 reporters, editors and activists who deal with the media received copies of Reporting on Suicide: Recommendations for the Media. Project staff members made presentations and distributed copies of the guidelines at numerous meetings and conferences (see Appendix 3 for a partial list of meetings and conference at which presentations/trainings were given and guides distributed) for journalists and other groups; they also sent copies to reporters and editors interviewed as part of the research conducted under the first RWJF grant; to reporters, editors and producers at the nation's top 100 newspapers and major-market television stations; and to all U.S. college newspaper editors. Staff members also met with deans of major journalism schools and sent guidelines to authors of best-selling journalism textbooks. During the project, they also sent the guidelines to more than 700 reporters who had written articles that did not conform to the new recommendations.
- The Annenberg Center created a Web site, hosted by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, that contains the guidelines and other resources for journalists. The site, no longer available, also included information on suicide's danger signs, a list of experts to contact, and examples of good and problematic reporting.
Researchers reported the following findings in unpublished reports:
- Articles linking the end-of-the-year holidays to suicide were common, despite factual evidence that suicide is lower at the end of the year. In 1996, the last year for which complete data were available, suicides peaked in the spring and fall, with the lowest rates occurring in November and December. However, 66 percent of the stories reporting suicides that were examined by the researchers linked the suicide to the holidays or posited a direct relationship between the holidays and suicides. Only 13 percent of the articles studied attempted to debunk the holiday suicide myth.
- There is evidence of a change in reporting practices following the release of the new media guidelines. Analysis of New York Times articles reporting suicides in 2003, compared to prior years, found fewer uses of the word suicide in headlines and fewer descriptions of the suicide method, both of which were recommendations of the new guidelines. Stories still received prominent placement, however, and failed to discuss the importance of treatable mental conditions as precursors to suicide. Reporters at other papers who had been sent the guidelines after writing problematic stories followed the guidelines more closely in subsequent articles.
Project staff reported on the guidelines and findings of the project in several journals, including Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior, Media Ethics, the American Editor, and a special issue of American Behavioral Scientist devoted to youth suicide. See Bibliography for details.
Researchers conducted media training for psychiatrists at the American Psychiatric Association's annual convention in 2002, and for psychologists at the annual convention of the American Psychological Association in 2003. The project team presented its research on press reporting of suicide to a national conference on suicide prevention hosted by the National Institute of Mental Health, in June 2001. It issued a press release and report about the holiday suicide myth in December 2000.
SIGNIFICANCE TO THE FIELD
The findings from this project debunk myths about when suicides occur the timing turns out not to be holiday-heavy, according to RWJF Program Officer Joseph Marx. He notes that the findings also show a strong connection with mental illness and substance abuse.
- It is difficult to change the reporting practices of seasoned reporters who are working in media environments with established reporting norms that constrain journalistic accounts of suicide. The media guidelines may be more effective in changing reporting practices at small newspapers, in small communities, than at large newspapers in large cities. Readers of smaller newspapers are sometimes more likely to respond to damaging reporting, and some journalists at smaller newspapers have demonstrated that they are interested in doing a better job of reporting suicide. (Project Team Member/Daniel Romer, Ph.D.)
- Reporters change their beats as often as every six months, so contact with reporters in the field and education about suicide reporting guidelines must be ongoing. The project team found this follow-up to be worthwhile. Following up with reporters who had written a story about a suicide by sending a letter and a copy of the guidelines significantly improved their subsequent reporting on suicide. (Project Team Member/Romer)
- Information about suicide reporting guidelines should be introduced in journalism school. (Project Team Member/Romer) Although this is an interesting idea, there are concerns about how this would be balanced with other important issues that also need to be taught and could use guidelines, e.g., addiction, end-of-life care. (Program Officer/Marx)
- Two to three years is not enough time to accomplish a project this ambitious. Effective dissemination of the guidelines would require a 10-year effort. (Project Team in Report to RWJF)
AFTER THE GRANT
RWJF did not fund a third grant proposal to continue the project, maintain the Web site and conduct follow-up research. Researchers at the Annenberg Center continue to disseminate the guidelines by making presentations, meeting with media and working with journalism textbook authors on incorporating the guidelines into textbooks. The center also continues to send copies of the guidelines to reporters who write about suicides, and to monitor their subsequent reporting.
GRANT DETAILS & CONTACT INFORMATION
Consensus Guidelines on Media Coverage of Suicide
University of Pennsylvania, The Annenberg School for Communication (Philadelphia, PA)
- Researching How Media Coverage Affects Suicide Rates
Amount: $ 100,000
Dates: October 2000 to September 2001
- Dissemination of Consensus Guidelines on Media Coverage of Suicide
Amount: $ 275,000
Dates: August 2001 to July 2004
Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Ph.D.
Nine Large-Circulation Newspapers Studied for the Project
Dallas Morning News
Los Angeles Times
New York Daily News
New York Times
(Note: The other top-10 newspaper, the Wall Street Journal, was not included in the study because the researchers found it had published no articles covering suicides in 1998, the year studied.)
Organizations and Agencies Issuing 'Reporting on Suicide: Recommendations for the Media'
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
National Institute of Mental Health
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
Office of the Surgeon General of the United States
American Foundation for Suicide Prevention
American Association of Suicidology
Annenberg School for Communication Public Policy Center
University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia
Conferences and Meetings with Presentations/Trainings on and Distribution of Guidelines
- The International Association of Chiefs of Policy Conference (Public Information Officers Training Workshop)
- Broadcast Education Association
- American Association of Suicidology
- American Psychiatric Association
- American Psychological Association
- Meeting with Criminal Justice Journalists
- American Public Health Association Convention
- The Traumatic Loss Coalition
- Screen Writers Guild Conference (by Barbara Lurie of Mental Health Media Partnership)
- American Society of Newspaper Editors Conference
- National Association of Black Journalists
(Current as of date of this report; as provided by grantee organization; not verified by RWJF; items not available from RWJF.)
Allen IR. "Preventing Suicide," Facts of Life, 7(8): 4, 2002. Available online. Kathleen Hall Jamieson contributed to the article.
Annenberg Public Policy Center et al. "Reporting on Suicide: Recommendations for the Media." Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior, 32(2): viiixii, 2002.
Gould M, Jamieson PE, Romer D. "Media Contagion and Suicide Among the Young." American Behavioral Scientist, 46(9): 12691284, 2003.
Jamieson KH. "Can Suicide Coverage Lead to Copycats?" The American Editor, 74(2): 2223, 2002. Available online.
Jamieson PE and Jamieson KH. "Covering Suicide Responsibly in Print Journalism." Media Ethics, 14(2): 6, 2021, 2003.
Jamieson PE, Jamieson KH, Romer D. "The Responsible Reporting of Suicide in Print Journalism." American Behavioral Scientist, 46(12): 16431660, 2003.
Romer D and Jamieson PE (eds.). "Introduction." Youth Suicide Issue, American Behavioral Scientist, 46(9): 11311136, 2003.
Annenberg Public Policy Center et al. Reporting on Suicide: Recommendations for the Media. Philadelphia: Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania, 2001.
Jamieson P and Jamieson KH. Reporters' Knowledge of Guidelines and Contagion. Philadelphia: Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania. Unpublished report.
Jamieson P and Jamieson KH. Interviews with Reporters of Stories about Murder Suicide. Philadelphia: Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania. Unpublished report.
Romer D, Jamieson P, Jamieson KH. Perpetuating the Myth of the Rise in Winter Holiday Suicides. Unpublished report.
Romer D, Jamieson P, Jamieson KH. News Media Influences on Suicide. Unpublished report.
Romer D, Jamieson P, Jamieson KH. Suicide Reporting in Major US Newspapers. Unpublished report.
Romer D, Jamieson P, Holtschlag J, Mebrathu H, Jamieson KH. Annenberg Study Finds that the Press Inaccurately Suggests Suicides Rise at Such Holidays as Christmas. Philadelphia: Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania, 2000. Unpublished report accompanying December 15, 2000, press release.
World Wide Web Sites
www.afsp.org/education/recommendations is no longer available, although its parent site is available. Reporting on Suicide: Recommendations for the Media, on the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention Web site, includes guidelines for media coverage of suicide and reference sections for reporters. This site also featured a "For the Public" section with an article, "How to Encourage Responsible Coverage of Suicide in Print and Television News," written by Patrick Jamieson of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, that advised the public on how to contact reporters when they see or hear news coverage about suicide that they consider problematic.
Report prepared by: Karyn Collins
Reviewed by: Robert Narus
Reviewed by: Molly McKaughan
Program Officer: Frank Karel
Program Officer: Joan Hollendonner
Program Officer: Joseph F. Marx