What Makes Suicides Newsworthy?

Is suicide really contagious? Ever since the publication of Johann von Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther in 1774 led to a rash suicides, the existence of the "Werther effect" has been supported by numerous research studies. Well into the 20th century, high-profile suicides involving celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe, Kurt Cobain, and Yukiko Okada have been linked to later deaths believed to have been committed by fans imitating their idols.

Along with celebrity suicides, research has linked copycat deaths to news stories describing specific locations and/or methods of committing suicide that increases the likelihood of vulnerable people killing themselves in the same way. Suicide epidemics linked to places such as Mount Mihara and Aokigahara Forest in Japan, the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, and the Bloor Viaduct in Toronto have persisted despite attempts to curb deaths with improved safety measures. Even the presence of Internet web sites describing suicide methods and "suicide kits" available by mail order can often lead to deaths that might never have occurred otherwise.

In response to concerns about copycat suicides, media agencies in many countries have developed formal guidelines to encourage the responsible reporting of suicides. Despite accusations of censorship, these guidelines are intended to correct popular misconceptions about suicide and to avoid reporting deaths in a sensationalized manner. Although these guidelines are useful to a point, the need to report on high-profile deaths is an ongoing problem for news agencies.

To read more, check out my new contribution to the Huffington Post. 


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