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June 11, 2018

We need to talk about high-profile suicides. But we need to do it differently, experts say.

Daily Briefing

    By Ashley Fuoco Antonelli, Contributing Editor

    Like the rest of the world, I was both saddened and shocked when news broke this week that fashion designer Kate Spade and chef and CNN storyteller Anthony Bourdain had both died by apparent suicides.

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    While we mourn these high-profile losses, we should remember that suicide is an ever-growing public health issue in the United States. According to a CDC  report released Thursday, rates of death by suicide in the country have increased by 25% over the two decades ending in 2016—with rates rising by more than 30% in 25 states, including a 57% increase in North Dakota.

    But while it's important to pay attention to these trends, observers this week called for news outlets to be more thoughtful about their coverage of high-profile deaths, saying some reports risked sparking a so-called "suicide contagion." Let's take a closer look.

    Some call for more responsible reporting

    Jennifer Michael Hecht, who holds a PhD in the history of science and culture from Columbia University and has studied suicide's effects throughout history, is one of the voices raising concerns about the media's coverage of celebrity suicides. Hecht in Vox wrote that various studies have shown that the way suicide is portrayed "publicly can have astounding consequences," particularly that "news of one person ending their own life can lead to more suicides, especially for people similar to the victim in age and gender." Youth, she wrote, are particularly vulnerable to this trend. Further, Hecht noted that research shows "the more exposure to media reporting of suicide, including the number of articles and the prominence of the death, the greater the copycat effect."

    Recognizing those findings, "a national conference of suicidologists, psychologists, and journalists" in 1989 "pooled their knowledge and came up with a set of media guidelines for reporting on suicide," which CDC eventually endorsed, Hecht writes. Those rules included not mentioning suicide or "the method of suicide" in headlines about suicide deaths, and not providing a "detailed description of the method" in media coverage, according to Hecht.

    Hecht writes that while "traditional newspapers were at least somewhat responsive to the guidelines," it's tougher to control reporting on the internet, "where information spreads with little oversight." Hecht urged news sites to "stick to guidelines" even in digital media, concluding, "The press and everyone else posting and sharing messages about [these] tragic death[s] need to communicate responsibly."

    USA Today's Alia Dastagir raised similar concerns, writing that the media turned Spade's death into "a spectacle" rather than the "tragedy" it is. Dastagir wrote, "In the hours after police announced [that Spade] had died, many news outlets reported graphic details of her suicide," and "many readers hunted down those details, trying to dissect an act that seems incomprehensible, to weave together a story with no easy lessons." She continued, "But for people who have contemplated suicide, the rehashing of these details can mean the difference between life and death."

    Kelly McBride, vice president at the Poynter Institute and the organization's expert on suicide reporting, told Dastagir, "When we cover suicide irresponsibly, we actually make the problem worse because there are things in suicide stories that are scientifically proven to create a contagion effect."

    For instance, Hecht cited a Columbia University study that found in the months following comedian and actor Robin Williams' death, which was widely reported and discussed on social media, suicide by strangulation rose by 32%, compared with about 3% for other methods of suicide. "These are real lives gone," Hecht writes.

    But experts say media still should report on suicides

    But that's not to say the media shouldn't have any part in reporting on celebrity suicides, experts and observers argue.

    John Draper, director of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, told Dastagir, "When there is a high-profile suicide, the media obviously can't ignore talking about this person's death," but added, "How they talk about it … is very important." For instance, he noted, "Most obituaries read about not how the person died, but what their life was like."

    McBride told Dastagir that media coverage of suicides should move "the focus from the individual to the universal" and stress that "it is something that can be prevented."

    Further, Draper said the media has the opportunity to have "a hugely positive effect" by sharing resources for individuals who are experiencing suicidal thoughts.

    And Frank Brosnahan, Spade's father, appears to agree. In an interview with the Kansas City Star on Wednesday, Brosnahan stressed the importance of talking about suicide in a manner that could help others. He said, "One thing we feel is that any talk that they do that helps somebody else, [Spade] would have liked that," adding, "If that helped anybody avoid anything—fine, she'd be delighted."

    The Daily Briefing wants you to know that if you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, there are people at the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at all times who want to help. You can reach them at 800-273-TALK (8255). Please, reach out.

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