For the Media

Guide for Journalists

The Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network highly recommends the Guide to Engaging the Media in Suicide Prevention, a joint venture of the Suicide Prevention Resource Center (SPRC) and the Suicide Prevention Awareness Network (SPAN USA). This 44-page guide offers recommendations for serving as an an effective media spokesperson and how to generate media coverage to create awareness of suicide prevention. The publication describes how to use television, radio, and print media and provides examples of press releases, media advisories, pitch letters, op-eds and more. It also gives tips for identifying appropriate media outlets, creating up-to-date media lists, and tracking your results.

The Network also offers the following general guidelines as a companion to this material:

Suicide & Publicity

Help for journalists who report suicidal death
The media can play a powerful role in educating the public about suicide prevention, its causes and warning signs, trends in suicide rates, helping resources, and recent treatment advances. They can also highlight how to prevent suicide and how to help someone who is feeling suicidal.

However, such stories also have the potential to do harm.

These recommendations can help prevent media related “suicide contagion” or “copycat” suicides.

Minimize coverage of suicide and avoid sensationalism.

  • Avoid normalizing, romanticizing or idealizing suicide. Prominent coverage or dramatizing suicide through descriptions or pictures may encourage persons at risk to see suicide as a way of getting attention or retaliation.
  • Avoid details or pictures of the method, location, site or the funeral. Such details may encourage vulnerable individuals to imitate it.
  • Avoid presenting suicide as the inexplicable act of an otherwise promising, healthy or high-achieving person to discourage identification with the victim. Reports of community expression of grief should also be minimized.
  • Using adolescents on TV or in print media to tell stories of their suicide attempts may be harmful and may encourage other vulnerable young people to seek attention in this way.
  • Describe the deceased as having “died by suicide” rather than as “a suicide” or having “committed suicide.” The latter two expressions reduce the person to the mode of death or connote criminal or sinful behavior.

Language

  • Referring to “non-fatal” suicide attempts is preferable to using terms such as “unsuccessful” or “failed” suicide attempts.
  • Referring to a “rise” in suicide rates is usually more accurate than calling such a rise an “epidemic.”
  • Avoid describing a suicide as unexplainable (e.g. “He had everything going for him.”), romanticized (e.g. “We want to be together for all eternity.”) or simplistic (e.g. “Boy commits suicide because he has to wear braces.”).

Include the following “Warning Signs’ and “How to Help” lists in a sidebar:

Warning Signs

  • Threats of suicide or statements revealing a desire to die.
  • Previous suicide attempts or self harm.
  • Depression (crying, changes in sleeping/eating patterns, hopelessness, loss of interest in hobbies/activities).
  • Final arrangements (e.g. giving away prized possessions).
  • Drastic changes in personality or behavior.

How to Help

  • Keep calm and take it seriously. Do not minimize the threat or assume it is a joke or a way of getting attention.
  • Discuss suicide openly and directly.
  • Listen. Show your support and concern.
  • If possible, remove objects such as guns or pills that could be used to inflict self harm.
  • Get professional help.

Recommendations to reduce the contagion risk:

  • Print the story on an inside page whenever possible.
  • Print the story below the fold
  • Avoid the word “suicide” in the headline.
  • Avoid printing a photo of the person who died by suicide.
  • Present alternatives to suicide (e.g. calling a suicide prevention center, obtaining counseling, etc.)
  • When possible, present examples of positive outcomes of people in suicidal crises.
  • List helpful community resources such as the Crisis Intervention Center, Mental Health Association, community mental health centers, etc.

Interviewing Surviving Relatives and Friends:

  • If interviewing grieving family members or friends is necessary, exercise caution. During the period immediately after a death by suicide, those left behind have difficulty understanding what happened: responses may be extreme, problems may be minimized and motives may be complicated.
  • Accounts based upon initial reactions are often unreliable. In the first shocked reaction, friends and family may find a loved one’s death by suicide inexplicable or they may deny that there were warning signs.
  • Some informants may suggest that a particular individual such as a family member, a school, or a health service provider in some way played a role in the victim’s death by suicide. However, there are usually multiple causes for suicide.

These guidelines were developed by the World Health Organization, the Office of the Surgeon General, the Centers for Disease Control, the American Association of Suicidology and others.

Also see “Recommendations for Reporting on Suicide”, a short handout from the National Suicide Prevetion Lifeline summarizing the above points.

Suicide on Video and TV

You are strongly encouraged to think carefully about the messages and audience before showing dramatic depictions of suicide to others.

The guidelines for reporting on suicide included above should be reviewed. These guidelines should also be applied to dramatic depictions of suicide or suicidal behavior.

While many of these programs can be very effective, they may not be appropriate for certain audiences. Children and adolescents, particularly, are very impressionable and extra care must be extended in order to prevent any unintended negative consequences.

The PDF document “Media Guidelines: Portrayals of Suicide”, a publication of the Samaritans UK, is a valuable guide.

The American Association of Suicidology maintains a list of videos recommended for educational purposes. The list can be found here.