Everyone has a role to play in preventing suicides, and the media is no exception. Media can be a strong ally in suicide prevention, but media can also hinder suicide prevention efforts and do harm if media reports do not follow evidence-based guidelines for reporting on suicide.
“The Werther Effect”
The Werther Effect is well-researched and well-documented and describes how there can be an increase in suicides following media reporting on a suicide. This effect of media stories leading to contagion or imitation does not necessarily always happen – it depends on the quality of the reporting and its adherence to guidelines developed based on a wealth of research.
Some general guidelines to avoid this harmful effect include:
- Avoid reporting specific details of the method of suicide
- Avoid descriptions of suicide as unexplainable, e.g., “He had everything going for him.”
- Avoid reporting romanticized versions of the reasons for the suicide(s), e.g., “We want to be together for all eternity.”
- Avoid simplistic reasons for the suicide, e.g., “Boy died by suicide because he had to wear braces.”
- Printing story on an inside page instead of on the cover page
- If the story must appear on the first page, print it below the fold
- Avoid the word “suicide” in the headline
- Avoid printing a photo of the person who died by suicide or photos giving clues to the suicide method
- Always ensure you are avoiding stigmatizing or judgemental language, e.g., don’t use “committed suicide” “failed/unsuccessful suicide attempt”, etc. – learn about language guidelines to avoid stigmatizing language here
It is important to report a suicide in a straightforward manner so that the suicide does not appear exciting. Reports should not make the suicidal person appear admirable, nor should they seem to approve of the suicide.
“The Papageno Effect”
More recently a focus on research, the Papageno Effect describes the suicide preventing influence the media can have. To encourage the prevention of suicide, it is helpful to:
- Present alternatives to suicide, e.g., calling a suicide prevention center, getting counselling, etc.
- Whenever possible, present examples of positive outcomes of people in suicidal crises, e.g., stories of individuals who have survived a suicide attempt and are now living healthy, positive lives
- Provide information on community resources for those who may be suicidal or who know people who are.
- Provide information about warning signs of suicide