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How the media covers celebrity suicides can have life-or-death consequences

It’s important for news outlets to report on these deaths responsibly.

Carlos Ciudad Photos / Getty Images

The recent deaths of chef, TV host, and author Anthony Bourdain, 61, and the fashion designer Kate Spade, 55, by suicide raise some of the same issues as the coverage of DJ Avicii’s death in April of this year.

“Avicii reportedly committed suicide with broken glass bottle” was Page Six’s headline. “Avicii’s suicide caused by self-inflicted cuts from glass,” reported TMZ. “In Avicii’s death, suicide details emerge,” the Los Angeles Times said.

Sensational headlines like these continue to crop up following the death of 28-year-old DJ and artist Tim Bergling, better known as Avicii, who died by suicide last month.

The news of Avicii’s death is deeply painful and confusing for many. It’s shocking that someone with so much could be so sad: He was young, beautiful, talented, wealthy, and widely loved. But shock is not a good excuse to throw ethics out the window when it comes to reporting his death.

I’m a historian of culture and philosophy who recently researched and wrote a book about how different societies have understood suicide, and how that has had both tragic and terrific consequences. Watching the coverage of Avicii’s death is, for me — given the research on how suicide spreads — like watching a slow-motion catastrophe.

Studies have shown, over and over, that the way we talk about suicide publicly can have astounding consequences. News of one person ending their own life can lead to more suicides, especially for people similar to the victim in age and gender. When they occur within professions, schools, ethnicities, or towns, experts call them suicide clusters, or speak of contagion, or social modeling. The media effect appears to be strongest in young people.

When someone struggling with mental health is suffering and knows that someone like them responded to that suffering by killing themselves, it puts death on the table. Media contagion research shows a dose effect: the more exposure to media reporting of suicide, including the number of articles and the prominence of the death, the greater the copycat effect.

Changing the way a suicide is reported in the press can reduce suicides. In 1989, a national conference of suicidologists, psychologists, and journalists pooled their knowledge and came up with a set of media guidelines for reporting on suicide, the goal being to keep vulnerable people alive.

Some rules were straightforward: Don’t mention “suicide” in the headline. Don’t mention the method of suicide in the headline, and avoid a detailed description of the method in the article. Others were more subjective: Don’t “glorify” the act; don’t engage in “excessive” reporting of the suicide. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention endorsed the guidelines.

We have decades of robust, replicated, international research showing that these details matter. When people in a vulnerable state are bombarded by reports of the specific details of a suicide, including the method, it triggers ideation and action. A 1987 study discovered that an 80 percent drop in suicides by subway in Vienna was due to the rollout of ethical media reporting as well as a prevention campaign. Long before we had statistics, coroners in Victorian England would not return weapons used in a suicide to the family because they knew it increased the risk that someone else would put the tool to the same use.

The spread of online news and social media makes it harder to stick to guidelines

Traditional newspapers were at least somewhat responsive to the guidelines. Research has shown that Kurt Cobain’s death, which occurred a few years after the CDC released suicide reporting guidelines, was generally reported responsibly. The New York Times headline, “Kurt Cobain, Hesitant Poet Of ‘Grunge Rock,’ Dead at 27” prudently omitted even the fact of the suicide from the headline. We can’t measure the effect clearly since other proactive measures were taken to support vulnerable people, especially in Seattle, where Cobain was based. Still, after his death, the suicide rate did not go up.

But on the internet, where information spreads with little oversight, adhering to guidelines is much harder. Researchers are finding that features of the internet — like search algorithms and hyperlinks to similar stories — multiply the impact of irresponsible reporting. New studies examining the impact of online news media and social media in Canada, Japan, and the UK on the suicide media contagion suggest that the internet is exacerbating the problem.

In 2014, after news broke that Robin Williams had taken his own life, headlines on Fox News, the Daily News, and even the New York Times included details that he “hanged himself,” some even noting that a belt was used.

A meme depicting Disney’s Aladdin character saying, “You’re free now, Genie,” in reference to the Williams-voiced Genie character, went viral. Experts winced. It made the suicide seem like a triumph and suggested that the dead are somewhere better or freer. In the new environment, even established media dropped its self-control.

For the four months that followed, the suicide rate went up 10 percent, according to the CDC data. The rise was especially dramatic among middle-aged men. A study out of Columbia University showed that suicide by strangulation rose by 32 percent, compared to about 3 percent for other methods used. These are real lives gone.

Celebrity suicides have an outsize influence. People recognized the phenomenon before modern statistics: After publication of Wolfgang Goethe’s Sufferings of Young Werther, there was a rash of suicides across Europe notably similar to the one in the novel. It was called the “Werther effect.” After Marilyn Monroe’s death, suicides increased by 12 percent.

After Cobain’s death, suicidologists set up prevention supports such as community outreach in Seattle, and they worked: The number of calls to suicide hotlines in the region increased, but not the number of suicides. Likewise, anti-suicide programs instituted at schools at the start of a suicide cluster can be effective, some research has shown.

The internet age is still relatively new, and we’ll know more in the future about how to balance freedom of speech and public health. But for now, news sites should stick to the guidelines. If they choose not to, as so many have following Avicii’s death, I’d encourage them to think harder about the issue, get the facts, and make a public statement about their policy on reporting these deaths. That might jump-start the national conversation we need to have.

And we all play a part. Everyone can be smart about what they post and avoid words or pictures on social media that could perpetuate bad practices and even endanger someone vulnerable.

If you have intrusive suicidal thoughts in a period of a few months after the suicide of someone you admired or feel similar to, ask for help. Call a suicide hotline or get to a doctor and talk about how you’re feeling.

Avicii’s music videos, so upbeat and positive, are almost unbearably poignant to watch now. The internet, as always, is overflowing with content about his death. But we all need to be aware that words can be a deadly arrow. The press and everyone else posting and sharing messages about this tragic death need to communicate responsibly. Doing so could save a life.

Jennifer Michael Hecht holds a PhD in the history of science and culture from Columbia University. Her books include Stay: A History of Suicide and the Arguments Against It and Doubt: A History.

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