'Suicides increase after high-profile coverage'

Cobain:death ‘deglorified’ in Seattle

The number of people who take their own lives increases following dramatic reports in the media of suicides, particularly of celebrities, a new study has revealed.

The most influential media reports were those that featured teenagers and young men, who were found to be the most vulnerable group. The findings have led to calls for the media to draw up in-house guidelines on how to cover suicides.

Compiled by Kathryn Williams and Keith Hawton of the Centre for Suicide Research at Oxford University, Suicidal Behaviour and the Media covers research from 26 countries going back 150 years. It was sponsored by Befrienders International.

It shows the number of deaths rose most in groups similar to the victims in age and sex and when there was substantial cross-media coverage.

Out of 30 studies in countries including Australia, Germany, Switzerland, the UK and the US, 21 revealed an increase in suicides following media coverage. The victims were often from similar sections of society and used similar methods of suicide as those featured in news stories.

Many stories in the media described in detail the method of suicide, causing copycat attempts. If the method described was particularly likely to be fatal, the number of attempted suicides that resulted in death rose.

One concern highlighted in the study was the claim that the media did not provide significant background information on the reasons for suicide.

Ninety per cent of suicide victims are said to have psychiatric problems which, the authors of the study claim, is often ignored in news reports. They say the media often presents a single reason for suicide, such as a bad exam result.

However, Hawton, speaking at the launch of the study, stressed the positive effect the media can have on suicide rates. "Following an increase in subway suicides in Toronto and Vienna, the media agreed on voluntary restrictions. There followed a significant decrease in suicides." He claimed that when Nirvana lead singer Kurt Cobain committed suicide, his death was heavily deglorified by the press in Seattle, where he died.

Simon Armson, chief executive of The Samaritans in the UK and Ireland, said that the charity’s work relied upon a good relationship with the press and he hoped that the media could have a positive effect in taking away the stigma and taboo of suicide.

Representatives from the National Union of Journalists, the PressWise Trust, the International Federation of Journalists and the Foreign Press Association agreed that newsrooms should be encouraged to draw up in-house guidelines on how to cover suicides.

By Mary Stevens

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