Some of the news coverage this week of the deaths of celebrities Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain violates carefully developed, evidence-driven media guidelines.
The Recommendations for Reporting on Suicide, developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the National Institute of Mental Health, the Annenberg Public Policy Center and other groups dedicated to suicide prevention, urge the news media not to sensationalize coverage, not to explicitly detail methods, and to report on suicide without contributing to contagion.
Problematic coverage in recent days has included sensationalizing Spade’s death through graphic details in news alerts and stories. Many news organizations featured details that run counter to the reporting recommendations. For example: “A housekeeper found Spade hanging from a red scarf tied to her bedroom doorknob, officials said.” (Variety). Other accounts gathered up instances of celebrity deaths to find a purported trend: “Kate Spade’s suicide is the latest in a tragic and disturbing recurrence of high-profile fashion designers who have hanged themselves.” (CNN) “Kate Spade is the latest star to be found hanged, highlighting what may be a… trend.” (Fox News)
“A concern about the media coverage of suicide, especially involving celebrities like Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, is that it can lead to contagion,” said Dan Romer, research director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center (APPC) of the University of Pennsylvania. “Reporters are discouraged from talking about suicide trends based on anecdotal evidence.”
These are three recommendations for reporting on suicide:
Prominent coverage can spark imitation. More than 50 research studies have found that certain kinds of news coverage can increase the likelihood of suicide in people who are vulnerable. Research published more than a decade ago by APPC of six large U.S. cities confirmed the effect of media-induced suicide contagion. This effect “is perhaps one of the most reliable influences of the media on violence and substantiates the powerful role that the media can play in promoting the imitation of destructive and violent behavior.” (Are news reports of suicide contagious? A stringent test in six US cities, by Daniel Romer, Patrick E. Jamieson & Kathleen Hall Jamieson, 2006, Journal of Communication)
Don’t detail methods. The risk of additional suicides increases when a story explicitly describes the method involved. “Describing the method helps people who are vulnerable to learn of a potentially lethal method,” Romer said. “It’s compounding the problem.” This is especially true when reporting on the death of celebrities and when describing novel methods. In the months following the widespread coverage of comedian Robin Williams’ death in 2014, the suicide rate increased 10 percent, and even more among those who, like Williams, died of suffocation, according to a study this year in PLOS One. (Increase in suicides the months after the death of Robin Williams in the US)
Do provide resources for help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255 (1-800-273-TALK). Text the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 to be connected with a trained counselor. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) offers resources, as does the Suicide Prevention Resource Center. Encouraging discussion with those who might be at risk is also encouraged as it might reveal their need for help.
Some of the media coverage has followed these recommendations. CNN accompanied a report on Bourdain’s death with the sidebar “Asking for help,” including phone, text and online resources. Reporting about Spade, CBS News focused on a CDC report on the national increase in suicide rates. And as the Hollywood Reporter noted, “In addition to mourning Bourdain, a number of stars urged awareness about depression and warning signs and advised anyone who needs help that they could call the National Suicide Prevention hotline at 1-800-273-8255.”