April 30, 2007

Does Media Reporting Of Suicides and Homicides Promote Copycats?

I won't give a detailed answer to this question here (it seems to be no), but there is an article making the reddit rounds now that I need to kill before it becomes another meme (like that other badly reported story about psychiatry.)

The article is from BMJ 2002, called Influences of the Media On Suicide, and it puts its conclusion right at the top:

Reporting and portrayal of suicidal behaviour in the media may have potentially negative influences and facilitate suicidal acts by people exposed to such stimuli. Recent systematic reviews by others and ourselves (unpublished) have found overwhelming evidence for such effects.1 (emphasis mine)

And it offers about 8 references in support.  And so now every nut with a microphone can proclaim it loudly: it's the media's fault.

We may want to take a pause and examine these 8 references: none of them offer anything close to "overwhelming evidence."  For example:

Reference 1-- the one directly cited for the above statements-- is indicative of the type of "overwhelming evidence" that exists. The study finds that media reporting of suicide is extensive and detailed, but not that there is a clear link to future suicides.  

In the summary, the authors use phrases like, "dearth of literature," "evidence is less reliable," "few studies permitting/demonstrating [the link]," "does not demonstrate consistency," "many studies fail to demonstrate" over 11 times in the 3 pages describing the studies. 

Despite this, they are sure the link exists-- but they don't actually show the link, they infer a link.    The authors repeat phrases, "it is fair to conclude that the evidence suggests an association [exists]" "tends to suggest," "probably reasonable to regard the association is causal"  13 times in two pages.  Under these criteria, it's reasonable to assume the Matrix is real.

Reference 3 (not even linked correctly) is a letter to the editor, describing two cases, where the method of suicide was affected by internet, but not the decision to commit suicide.  And the methods were rather weak: one guy took two pills of castor oil, and the other woman tried to drink water.  No, I'm not kidding.

Reference 5 is frequently cited in support of media's impact.  It supposedly says that a TV show with a Tylenol OD caused more Tylenol ODs: 20% of these suicidal viewers said it influenced their decision to attempt suicide in the first week post broadcast.  Maybe-- that 20% is really 6 people.  And most had attempted Tylenol OD in the past.  Oh, and the authors note that while 17% of the suicidal viewers' choice of Tylenol was influenced by the show, some of them chose not to use it because of the show.

Reference 12 is probably the most cited reference in this field.  In 1978 Vienna built a subway, which soon became a popular method of suicide.  So the government established guidelines for reporting-- specifically, that the method not be mentioned-- and subways suicides decreased by 80%.  Fantastic.  Overall suicide rates didn't change, though.  Too bad. 

So much for the "overwhelming evidence" for a soon to be media soundbite. 

The article doesn't make a good case for media influencing the decision to kill yourself, though I'll admit that it may influence the method.  And that's where it gets tricky.

It's important to make a distinction between copycat suicides and copycat homicides: more poeple die in the latter, and, let's postulate, they didn't want to die. That has to be part of the calculus in media reporting. Copying suicide by water (instead of pills) is different than copying a 30 person massacre (instead of killing, say, one person.)

But you have to weigh this against the societal costs.  The solution offered in these articles is to restrict media reporting.  I think we can agree that the media are neither liberal nor conservative, but  sensationalists, their bias is titillation.  But to allow anyone, especially government, to affect the content of reporting-- literally, the information we are allowed to have-- seems exactly the wrong solution to a problem which may not actually exist.  (e.g. I know it seems prurient, but I actually want to know all the details of David Kelly's suicide.)

Not to mention that if you say the media are partly responsible, then you're saying that you're less responsible.

(More on copycat suicides here, and on university suicides/copycats here and here.)







Comments

I wrote an entire book fill... (Below threshold)

April 30, 2007 7:10 PM | Posted by Loren Coleman: | Reply

I wrote an entire book filled with case studies, examples, cited literature, and all the references you may wish to investigate, regarding the impact of the media on behavior contagion.

It is entitled The Copycat Effect (NY: Simon and Schuster, 2004). I suggest you obtain it via your local library or order it online and read it. You are completely misunderstanding that there is no attempt to censor the media or restrict the reporting. Editorial decisions are made all the time. Why shouldn't the public question how the media handles this issue?

A call is being put out there for a responsible media to be responsible. For example, if you show videos of Cho, you are glorifying and creating the platform for the design and desire of the next shooter to do the same thing, but more so.

Anyone that works in suicide prevention knows and understands that there is only one person to blame, and that is the one that does the shooting, killing, and dies by suicide (or by suicide-by-cop). This is not about blaming the media. It is about respecting the process that is a foundation to a new cult of Columbine.

I suggest you read the book to more fully understand the topic and not take these shortcuts to dismissing the copycat effect.
Sincerely,
Loren Coleman

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I will read the book, but y... (Below threshold)

May 1, 2007 8:47 AM | Posted by Admin: | Reply

I will read the book, but your comment, "For example, if you show videos of Cho, you are glorifying and creating the platform for the design and desire of the next shooter to do the same thing, but more so" I think, is wrong. Why would people imitate Cho's videos more than, say, a slasher pic? If you allow movies, why not videos? Because one is fantasy? But if you're going to restrict anything, wouldn't it make more sense to allow us to see reality, rather than fantasy?

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Gosh as a consumer I was ho... (Below threshold)

May 2, 2007 12:58 PM | Posted by Psych.Meds: | Reply

Gosh as a consumer I was horrified to see Cho on the front of every newspaper. His image is not a "clear and present danger" but it is demoralizing, degrading, and if it moves one person closer to becoming dangerous, it's certainly irresponsible. I mean, what's the benefit? Who benefits?

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Completely agree with Psych... (Below threshold)

May 2, 2007 7:47 PM | Posted by Admin: | Reply

Completely agree with Psych.Meds. There is absolutely no value in broadcasting the details on the evening news.

However, I insist that the videos be somehow available. I need to see it, it's the only way I can understand this stuff.

And if I should be allowed to see it, I can't make the argument that others should not be allowed. Look, porn is everywhere. There are hundreds of gory slasher movies. If these things can be seen by anyone-- who knows where to go to see them-- then this has to, also.

I'll even agree that watching him actually shoot people might not be for public consumption. But his insane manifestos have to be.

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Can we agree that there's a... (Below threshold)

May 2, 2007 11:20 PM | Posted by Common Reader: | Reply

Can we agree that there's a difference between the material being available and the material being blared in public? TV screens playing news are everywhere - the ER, the line at the grocery store, the bank, airports. I don't want to see it, I don't want my 4yo to see it.

Admin's response: yes, absolutely. The media is generally irresponsible (read:sensationalist) in their reporting. But hiding information is never, ever a good idea.

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I have a copy of Wideman's ... (Below threshold)

May 3, 2007 11:15 PM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

I have a copy of Wideman's Titticut Follies. I also have a curious ten year old. The two don't mix and I don't mix them. Let's not hide information, but let's be sensible.

And, what's there to understand? Cho was acutely symptomatic. It's about as interesting as a runny nose.

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What I'm concerned about is... (Below threshold)

May 4, 2007 9:33 AM | Posted by Alison: | Reply

What I'm concerned about is the effect on suicide rates of media hate speech and spapegoating directed at people living with mental illness. To me, just in my gut, there seems as if there would be an effect, but I don't know of any research on this subject.

Admin's response: exactly. The convenient thing for politicians to do is blame mental illness for everything, because then you don't have to ask the tougher questions, like, why did he do it? And what do we do with him now?

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I responded to your comment... (Below threshold)

May 8, 2007 8:57 PM | Posted by dinah: | Reply

I responded to your comment on Shrink Rap, Face to Face

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A recent suicide in England... (Below threshold)

June 4, 2007 6:46 PM | Posted by Boggart: | Reply

A recent suicide in England, of society fashion identity Isabella Blow, was reported because of that, more than most.
I was shocked that her method was by drinking weedkiller.
This depressed me for days.
So horrible that I cannot imagine any copycats.

An element of suicide reporting which always irritates me, is when those around the deceased are quoted as saying
"we had no idea he/she was that depressed"
of course they did.
they just were not paying attention.

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