Laura Meckler, Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON — (AP) Newspapers can help prevent copycat suicides by avoiding sensationalism exploring the depth of a victim’s problems, a new guide for the media says. The recommendations, released Thursday, were assembled after an extensive review of suicide coverage and dozens of interviews with reporters and editors.
“We’re not saying don’t cover it,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, which wrote the guide. “But there are vulnerable individuals who read and watch news and might be affected by the way in which a suicide is covered.” Research suggests that certain types of coverage are most likely to lead people to identify with victims and take their own llives. The guide urges reporters to refrain from giving graphic details about how a suicide was accomplished. It advises against portraying suicide as heroic or romantic or presenting suicide as an inexplicable act of an otherwise healthy person.
More than 90% of suicide victims have a significant psychiatric illness, usually mood disorders or substance abuse, often undiagnosed and untreated, the guide says. Reporters are encouraged to ask if the victim had ever received treatment for depression or had a drug or alcohol problem.
“Acknowledging the deceased person’s problems and struggles as well as the positive aspects of his/her life or character contributes to a more balanced picture,” the guide advises.
Rich Oppel, president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) , welcomed the recommendations and suggested that editors and reporters discuss them in formal training or less formal lunchtime discussions before a newsworthy suicide is upon them. “It’s a classic case of attempting to put ethics to work in practical situations,” said Oppel, who is also editor of the Austin (Texas) American-Statesman.
The recommendations were endorsed Thursday by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, Surgeon General David Satcher, and other private groups and government agencies.
Researchers reviewed every story about suicide during 1999 in the nation’s 10 largest newspapers, as well as the last three suicide stories in the largest 100 papers. Authors then interviewed 60 reporters and 15 editors who worked on those stories.
They found a lot of skepticism about the copycatphenomenon—also called contagion, Jamieson said.
So the guide begins with a bit of proof:Between 1984 and 1987, there were a series of people in Vienna who jumped in front of subway trains and killed themselves. Media coverage was extensive and dramatic. Then a campaign began to inform reporters that their reporting might be encouraging copycats. Over the next six months, the number of subway suicides dropped by more than 80%.
The guidelines, which were developed by a panel of experts in behavioral health, suicide, and media, were tested in focus groups of reporters before being finalized.
Other recommendations include:
· Explain the available treatments for depression and other problems.
· Be skeptical if a family member or friend of the victim suggests a simple explanation. Thorough investigation usually finds many causes.
· Minimize dramatic pictures showing grief.
· Avoid referring to suicide as an “epidemic,” since there has generally not been a sudden rise in suicide rates.
· If possible, avoid using the word “suicide” in a headline.
· Beware of alleged suicide pacts, which are mutual arrangements. Most pacts involve one coercive person and another who is quite dependent.
The research was conducted by Annenberg, which is based at the University of Pennsylvania, and paid for by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.