Thu, Nov 11, 2004 - Page 8 News List

Media must treat stories on suicide with care

By Wen Jung-kuang 文榮光

Widespread coverage of suicide in the media has long been thought to be capable of having a negative impact on society. There have been many questions and much criticism over whether publicizing suicide stories is related to issues of ethics and self-discipline.

Headlines such as "Does large-scale media coverage lead to high suicide rate?," "The media should not describe suicide in detail, lest it trigger copycat deaths," and "Is suicide contagious? Doctors: extensive media reports aggravate high suicide rate," are commonly seen in daily newspapers. When the police also discovered that reporters were encouraging people to commit suicide in online discussion groups to create sensational news and that reports on suicide by poisoning through inhaling the fumes of burning coals had caused a wave of suicides, it became clear that conducting a probe was a matter of urgency. Some studies have shown that one high-risk group, mentally disturbed people, is prone to suffer a negative impact from media coverage of suicides.

Studies have shown that people exposed to a suicide story involving either an entertainment or political celebrity were 14.3 times more likely to attempt suicide than a control group who were not. For example, during the month after Marilyn Monroe's suicide in August 1962, there were 303 more suicides in the US than in the previous month, a 12 percent increase. This phenomenon of imitative suicide induced by media coverage is called the "Werther effect," derived from Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther, a story of a young man who commits suicide after a failed love affair. When it was published in 1774, it was thought to have been responsible for a subsequent wave of suicides. Today, many studies in Europe and the US have concluded that the "Werther effect" or the "Monroe effect" is a reality, and similar imitative suicide behaviors can be observed in every country around the world.

A study conducted by Dominic Lee (李德誠), a psychiatrist and an associate professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and others, indicates that Taiwan's first suicide by carbon-monoxide poisoning by being exposed to the fumes of smoldering coals was copied from the Hong Kong media's coverage of this kind of suicide; therefore, we can see how important the role of the media is in regard to suicide.

Although there has not been any similar empirical research done in Taiwan, clinical evidence is available from the experience of psychiatric treatment of patients with depressive disorders, suicidal thoughts and attempted suicides. Media coverage of the suicide of celebrity Leslie Cheung (張國榮) and Legislator Lan Mei-chin's (藍美津) youngest child made patients with mental or depressive disorders susceptible to suicidal thoughts.

Therefore, the media should follow self-regulated guidelines in presenting suicide stories. Some countries, such as Switzerland, Austria and the US, have already set up suicide-prevention related organizations to issue guidelines for news coverage of suicide.

The most important principle is the fewer and shorter the media reports the better, especially in the print media, and more specifically, newspapers.

Suicidal thoughts, suicide attempts and successful suicides are the dreadful results of a decision made in a moment of weakness. Thus, the media should make the ethical value of "treasuring life, preventing suicide" their foundation when covering suicide stories.

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