March 20, 2003 -- Media reports about celebrity suicides are 14 times more likely to prompt copycat suicides than other types of stories, according to a new study that also shows the type of media coverage suicide receives can have a major impact on copycat effects.
Researchers found the more coverage a suicide received in the media, the more likely a copycat effect was found. But there were big differences according to the type of media outlet.
For example, televised stories on suicide were 82% less likely to produce a copycat effect or surge in suicide rates than newspaper articles.
"Unlike televised suicide stories, newspaper suicide stories can be saved, reread, displayed on one's wall or mirror, and studied," writes researcher Steven Stack, PhD, of the department of criminal justice at Wayne State University in Detroit. "Television-based stories on suicide typically last less than 20 seconds and can be quickly forgotten or even unnoticed."
The study analyzed 42 previously published reports on the impact of publicized suicide stories in the media on suicide rates worldwide.
It found that studies that looked at the effect of either an entertainment or political celebrity suicide were 14.3 times more likely to find a copycat suicide effect than others. But studies that looked at stories on real-life suicides (as opposed to fictional suicides) were only four times more likely to discover a copycat effect.
Stack says that stories about celebrity suicides, such as Marilyn Monroe, spark a greater degree of identification than stories about the suicide of other people. According to one theory, a suicidal person may read a story about a celebrity suicide and think, "if a person with fame and fortune cannot endure life, why should I?"
Researchers say recent efforts in Austria and Switzerland show that changes in the quality and quantity of media coverage of suicides can also have an impact on reducing copycat effects. These campaigns suggest that reducing the overall amount of press coverage of celebrity suicide or that of others is the most influential factor in preventing copycat suicides.
SOURCE: Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, April 2003.