What is the Framework?

Safe Messaging

Research finds that media reporting about suicide can increase risk, which has led to the development of reporting recommendations for media professionals.

  • Studies show that certain types of media reporting about suicide deaths may spur imitation of suicidal behavior among vulnerable individuals (people in despair or already thinking about suicide).1–3
  • Increased risk is associated with the amount, duration, and prominence of coverage; details about suicide method or location; stories about well-known individuals; simplistic explanations; modeling, normalizing, or glamorizing suicidal behavior; or including information that encourages identification with the person who died.3–7
  • This research is described in detail elsewhere, for example:
  • In response to these findings, many countries including the U.S. have created media recommendations to help journalists safely report on suicide.1,8
  • The U.S. recommendations can be found at www.ReportingOnSuicide.org.
  • The intent is not to silence the media or keep them from reporting on suicide. The focus of these recommendations is on how suicide is reported.
  • Evidence suggests that disseminating media recommendations can positively affect reporting practices, especially when journalists are approached as collaborators and recommendations are supplemented with sector-specific materials, training and consultation, organizational change efforts,

In addition to the potential for imitation, messages may be problematic because they’re counterproductive to prevention goals. Avoiding messages that undermine  prevention goals is also part of messaging safely. For example,

  • A large literature documents the impact of “social norms”—what we perceive is “normal”—on behavior, which suggests the potential harm of portraying suicidal behavior as common or acceptable.
  • Communications may unintentionally convey negative stereotypes about people with suicidality or mental illnesses or reinforce stigma rather than countering it.12–14
  • Best practices guidelines recommend against language and images that are have negative connotations or reinforce inaccurate stereotypes about people who are suicidal or who are living with mental illnesses, for example, TeamUp’s Social Media Guidelines for Mental Health Promotion and Suicide Prevention and the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health’s Language Matters in Mental Health.
  • While reducing the extent to which stigma is a barrier to help-seeking can be an important goal for suicide prevention efforts, using the term “stigma” in public messages may serve to reinforce rather than ameliorate it. It may be more productive to focus on solutions to stigma. This might be done, for example, by providing information that counters barriers and promotes audience-identified benefits of specific actions, rather than reiterating the extent to which stigma is a barrier. In fact, many anti-stigma communications may never mention the word stigma.14

The lessons of safe messaging apply to all public information efforts.

  • Experts have recommended that similar principles of safe messaging be followed by everyone who is messaging to the public about suicide.15,16

References

  1. Pirkis J, Blood RW, Beautrais A, Burgess P, Skehan J. Media guidelines on the reporting of suicide. Crisis J Crisis Interv Suicide Prev. 2006;27(2):82-87. doi:10.1027/0227-5910.27.2.82.
  2. Stack S. Media coverage as a risk factor in suicide. J Epidemiol Community Health. 2003;57(4):238-240.
  3.  Gould M, Jamieson P, Romer D. Media contagion and suicide among the young. Am Behav Sci. 2003;46(9):1269 -1284. doi:10.1177/0002764202250670.
  4. Stack S. Suicide in the media: A quantitative review of studies based on non-fictional stories. Suicide Life Threat Behav. 2005;35(2):121-133. doi:10.1521/suli.35.2.121.62877.
  5. Stack S. Media coverage as a risk factor in suicide. Inj Prev. 2002;8(suppl 4):iv30-iv32. doi:10.1136/ip.8.suppl_4.iv30.
  6.  Gould MS. Suicide and the media. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2001;932:200-224.
  7. Insel BJ, Gould MS. Impact of modeling on adolescent suicidal behavior. Psychiatr Clin North Am. 2008;31(2):293-316. doi:10.1016/j.psc.2008.01.007.
  8. Recommendations for Reporting on Suicide. 2011. Available at: http://reportingonsuicide.org/. Accessed October 18, 2012.
  9. Pirkis J, Dare A, Blood RW, et al. Changes in media reporting of suicide in Australia between 2000/01 and 2006/07. Crisis J Crisis Interv Suicide Prev. 2009;30(1):25-33. doi:10.1027/0227-5910.30.1.25.
  10.  Niederkrotenthaler T, Sonneck G. Assessing the impact of media guidelines for reporting on suicides in Austria: Interrupted time series analysis. Aust N Z J Psychiatry. 2007;41(5):419-428.
  11. Bohanna I, Wang X. Media guidelines for the responsible reporting of suicide: A review of effectiveness. Crisis J Crisis Interv Suicide Prev. 2012;33(4):190-198. doi:10.1027/0227-5910/a000137.
  12. Crane C, Hawton K, Simkin S, Coulter P. Suicide and the media: Pitfalls and prevention. Report on a meeting organized by the Reuters Foundation Program at Green College and University of Oxford Centre for Suicide Research at Green College, Oxford, UK, November 18, 2003. Crisis J Crisis Interv Suicide Prev. 2005;26(1):42-47. doi:10.1027/0227-5910.26.1.42.
  13. Owen PR. Portrayals of schizophrenia by entertainment media: a content analysis of contemporary movies. Psychiatr Serv Wash DC. 2012;63(7):655-659. doi:10.1176/appi.ps.201100371.
  14. Langford L, Litts D, Pearson JL. Using science to improve communications about suicide among military and veteran populations: looking for a few good messages. Am J Public Health. 2013;103(1):31-38. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2012.300905.
  15. CalMHSA. Suicide Prevention Situational Overview. AdEase, Education Development Center, Inc. & Your Social Marketer, Inc.; 2012.
  16. Chambers DA, Pearson JL, Lubell K, Brandon S, O’Brien K, Zinn J. The science of public messages for suicide prevention: a workshop summary. Suicide Life Threat Behav. 2005;35(2):134-145.