How journalists report on suicide matters

The media plays an important role in preventing suicide. How we all talk about, write about, and report on suicide matters. For someone considering suicide, it is possible to turn their thoughts into action by exposing them to detailed suicide-related content, including graphic depictions of the death, the method used, or memorials to the victim.

More than 100 research studies worldwide have found that certain types of news coverage can increase the likelihood of suicide in vulnerable people. In response to such studies, leading experts in suicide prevention, public health, journalism, and internet safety joined forces to create guidelines on how to report responsibly on suicide in order to save lives. Yet media organizations often fail to follow these guidelines, either because they don’t know any better, or care more about clicks and web traffic.

Suicide is usually the result of many factors, and the media’s irresponsible reporting can be one of them.

Suicide Contagion

Suicide contagion, or “copycat suicide,” is real. The magnitude of the increase in suicide is related to the amount, duration, and prominence of coverage, according to study after study. People affected by suicide contagion are likely already thinking about suicide. They may be struggling with mental health issues or substance abuse, along with other life stressors, and can be prompted to end their lives because of what they see on social media while scrolling through their news feeds.

Reporting on the outpouring of collective grief, quoting people describing the person in beatific ways, and reporting on or showing photos of physical memorials or ceremonies celebrating the suicide victim’s life can cause harm, according to experts. For someone experiencing pain and isolation, that kind of adoration detailed in reporting can seem more appealing than their current state of despair. Seeing sensationalized headlines and reporting about someone who ended a life can make a person who’s already struggling believe they can do it, too. It can give them the impression that it is acceptable or easy. Describing the method of how a person died by suicide gives vulnerable people ideas about how to carry it out themselves.

How To Talk About Suicide

The main message of any article, video, or television show about suicide should be to encourage people to get help when they need it and tell people where to look for that help by including local and national hotline numbers or other resources.

Inform, don’t sensationalize

  • Don’t include suicide in the headline.
  • Don’t use images of the location or method of death, grieving loved ones, memorials or funerals. Instead use school, work, or family photos.
  • If there was a note from the deceased, do not detail what the note said or refer to it as a “suicide note.” 

Choose your words carefully

  • When describing research or studies on suicide, use words like “increase” or “rise” rather than “epidemic” or “skyrocketing.”
  • Do not refer to suicide as “successful,” “unsuccessful” or a “failed attempt.” Do not use the term “committed suicide.” Instead, use “died by suicide,” “completed suicide,” “killed him/herself,” or “ended his/her life.”
  • Do not describe a suicide as “inexplicable” or “without warning.”

Report on suicide as a public health ssue

  • Include the warning signs of suicide and a “what to do if you think a loved one is considering suicide” in a sidebar or story if possible.
  • Do not report on suicide the same way you would report a crime.
  • Seek advice from suicide prevention experts rather than quoting police or first responders.

Suicide is not a subject that should be avoided. That only increases the stigma. Instead, it is a topic that should be handled carefully and thoughtfully, following best practices. It is easy to find guidelines online for reporting on suicide. The website reportingonsuicide.org is dedicated to the topic. The purpose of these guidelines is not to be “politically correct” or avoid the topic. The purpose is to save lives.

If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health, suicide or substance use crisis, or emotional distress, reach out 24/7 to the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline (formerly known as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline) by dialing or texting 988 or using chat services at suicidepreventionlifeline.org to connect to a trained crisis counselor. You can also get crisis text support via the Crisis Text Line by texting NAMI to 741741.