Guidelines For Media

Several resources aim to provide Media with information about suicide and to educate about the effect articles and reports may have on vulnerable people.

  • The Coroners Act 1988 and the Coroners Amendment Act 1996, contain laws that govern publication of details of self-inflicted deaths.
  • Some research links suicide reporting and a rise in rates of suicide
  • The Werther effect is about suicide imitation
The Press Council has called for greater freedom in the reporting of suicide. This coincided with the Law Commission’s examination of proposals for reform of the Coroners Act 1988. This Act and the Coroners Amendment Act 1996, contain the law regarding “publication of details of self-inflicted deaths”.

The Act does not restrict the media from covering the issue of suicide in general, but rather limits publication of specific details of individual cases, without the permission of the coroner. However, the current legislation is not necessarily easy to apply, or to enforce.

SPINZ claim conclusive evidence demonstrates a link between irresponsible reporting of suicide in the media and a rise in suicide rates. They mention the Werther Effect, in April 2002 issue of SPINZ News.

SPINZ acknowledge that many articles in New Zealand focussing on suicide prevention, are written with care and sensitivity. However, they say media in some parts of New Zealand appear to disregard the evidence. A copy of the SPINZ position paper on the Press Council’s call to ease the suicide reporting rules under the Coroners Act is available from SPINZ.

Suicide and the The Werther Effect

In 1774 Goethe published a story entitled Sorrows of Young Werther, in which the lovelorn Werther shot himself. A subsequent increase in suicides in Europe led to the book being banned. While the direct influence of the book upon this increase was never proven, the idea of fictional suicides and the contagion effect on real suicides has become known as the Werther effect.

The impact of media coverage of suicide (both fictional and non-fictional) on real suicides rates is one of the most widely debated topics in the search for reasons for increasing suicide rates.

In 2001, Jane Pirkis and R.W. Blood undertook a comprehensive review of the evidence regarding the impact of suicide and the media, as one of social learning. That is, individuals may have contemplated suicide prior to the media portrayal, but social taboos and inhibitions prevented it.

The media portrayal Media, reviewed 76 articles concerning suicide imitation and the media. 42 of these discussed non-fictional newspaper and television media coverage and 34 discussed fictional suicides in books, television, films, plays and music.

Pirkis and Blood conclude that the body of evidence shows an association between TV and newspaper reports of suicides and actual suicides (a causal link). The effect was particularly evident in the 10 days immediately following the report, and was more noticeable following a celebrity suicide.

More evidence is needed to prove a link between fictional suicides (in film and television) and actual suicides. There is also insufficient evidence to show a causal link between plays, heavy metal, country and western music and suicides. However, enough of a link was established to show we should still exercise caution when portraying suicide using any of these media.

Several of the studies reviewed by Purkis and Blood explained the link between may have the effect of making the suicide act acceptable.

Possible Recommendations
  • Continue to implement the practices put forward in the Ministry of Health’s Media Guidelines (Suicide and the media: the reporting and portrayal of suicide in the media, MoH, 1999
  • Avoid mentioning methods of suicide
  • Avoid prominent placement of suicide stories
The evidence does not show that the word suicide should never be mentioned. However, we must remember that any media portrayal of suicide may have the effect for some people of lifting the social sanction

Read the NZ media guidelines here or a short review.

Key international websites and articles providing guidelines for: interviewing, writing, reporting or dramatising suicide stories and issues:

American Foundation For Suicide Prevention

Irish Association of Suicideology - highly recommended site.

Source: SPINZ: Suicide and the Media