By Mariel Colin
Note: The following essay includes descriptions of suicide. If you are having thoughts of suicide, the following resources are available here.
This essay is a strong, data-driven analysis of a complex topic, which already makes it a good example of student writing in the social sciences. However, we also were taken with the way that Colin takes a shortcoming of the dataset—the regionalism of the studies she drew from, almost all taking place in Southeast or East Asian countries—and used it as a point of further inquiry in the paper’s conclusion. As a whole, this is a great example of how to work with limitations in datasets but also how to write into potentially triggering topics with sensitivity and nuance as well.
—Zefyr Lisowski, editor
There has been ongoing debate surrounding the extent to which media can influence suicidal behavior, especially in the context of the modern-news era (social media, etc.); thus, one may wonder how much this domino effect continues to wreak havoc on the world’s suicide rates and add to its increase. In 1974, David P. Phillips conducted a quasi-experimental study observing the relationship “between news media reports of suicide and subsequent suicidal behavior” and had the results from this landmark experiment were published in the American Sociological Review (Pirkis, Jane, et al.). “His experiment revealed that there was indeed a significant increase in the number of reported suicides after the prominent media coverage of a suicide. Thus, he trademarked the term “Werther Effect” to describe this horrific phenomenon, and ever since, numerous follow-up studies were performed to test Phillip’s theory, many of which strengthen the validity of his argument (Pirkis, Jane, et al.). Therefore, in this research report, one will attempt to answer: how does the media continue to contribute to the rise of suicide rates, attempted suicides, and copycat suicidal behavior after a celebrity’s death?
Multiple experimental studies have supported the theory that the frequency and reporting style of the media after the suicides of major celebrities influences how widespread the negative effects will be. However, the question remains: just how much does copycat suicide rise after reporting, and to what extent is truly the media’s fault?
While discussing the media influence on copycat suicidal behavior, we will be referring to our three main areas of focus: completed suicide rate, attempted suicide rates, and the rise of certain suicide methods after a major celebrity’s death. Research has already acknowledged the role of media exposure in promoting suicidal behaviors; therefore, one must take further action to prevent suicides by changing the way the media reports suicide-related information surrounding influential figures.
Section I: Increasing the Overall Suicide Rates
Before discussing how the media specifically influences copycat suicidal behavior, one must understand the overall negative effects that excessive media coverage of a celebrity’s suicide has in increasing national suicide rates. The spike in the number of copycat suicides after the event of a highly publicized suicide is commonly known as the Werther Effect. To be more precise, the proper definition for the Werther Effect would be the following: “a situation where an observer copies behavior he or she has seen modeled in the media” (Pirkis, Jane, et al.). This means that the media’s role in the Werther Effect is not limited to the act of suicide itself but can branch into more specific copycat behavior such as others imitating a suicide method or a suicide attempt.
Another study that supports this claim comes from a 2015 published paper in the highly- credible Indian Journal of Psychiatry by a group of five senior Indian psychiatrists whose main goal was evaluating whether a celebrity suicide influenced the trends of media portrayal of suicide (Harshe, Devavrat, et al.). They derived all their data from public domains, including as open newspaper reports and articles. They decided to observe the aftereffects of Robin Williams’s suicide on August 13, 2014, a renowned and well-loved actor, as their reference case when examining the top three Indian daily newspapers reports of his death (Harshe, Devavrat, et al.). Their results showed that there was a massive increase in the level of sensationalization, with headlines such as “Grim details of Robin Williams’ death released by investigators” and inclusion of excessive details about the suicide in news stories post-celebrity suicide (Harshe, Devavrat, et al.). This supports the argument that the media exploits the death of major celebrities to draw in high publicity and lack the reporting restraint necessary when dealing with this suggestive material. India’s excessive reporting of Robin Williams’ suicide shows that the deaths of prominent A-list celebrities can have a negative effect in the increasing the suicide rates not only in their country of origin but beyond that to the entire globe.
Furthermore, the amount of fame the deceased celebrity plays a critical factor in predicting the severity of the rise in suicide rates and imitation of suicidal behavior. In a different analysis paper of the aforementioned research experiment regarding the correlation between Twitter reactions and suicide rates in Japan, it was revealed that “suicides that generated little interest were not followed by increased suicides” but “celebrity suicides that received many tweets were followed by increased suicides” (Ueda, Michiko, et al.). The study had examined over 1 million tweets from Twitter that were related to the suicides of 26 suicides by prominent Japanese figures from the years 2010 to 2014 and concluded that the more relevant the celebrity was the greater their influence on sparking copycat suicides and imitation suicidal behavior when compared to less prominent figures (Ueda, Michiko, et al.). This data supports my argument that the level of fame and relevancy of the deceased celebrity is important to consider in fighting the Werther Effect. The media needs to enforce extra precautions when discussing these high-profile suicides because it is possible that the more famous the person was, then the greater the Werther Effect in causing more suicides. Moreover, another important revelation was that the Twitter users reacted more frequently and strongly to the deaths of prominent young entertainers. It is important to consider that when the media is covering younger celebrities, they are most likely admired by a younger demographic who are possibly more impressionable in general, including to the Werther Effect.
Section II: Popularizing Copycat Suicide Methods
Now that one has covered how media reporting increases the overall suicide rate after a celebrity death, one may begin to see the powerful yet negative influence the media holds in regards to public perception of suicidal behavior. In addition to raising the number of suicides, the media has the ability to influence the major types of suicide methods based on their reporting style. Celebrities, just like the media, are known to hold influential power by introducing trends and it appears that their death is no exception. Evidence from numerous studies has shown that media’s inclusion of overly- descriptive details involving how the celebrity committed suicide leads to a rise in the popularization of the celebrity’s suicide method. Vulnerable individuals searching for a way to end their life should not be subjected or exposed to the gory excessive details of a celebrity’s suicide. It is irresponsible behavior that has continuously been shown to have tremendous negative psychological effects by increasing imitation suicides, thus costing the world thousands of lives—especially since detailed depictions of a celebrity’s suicide target the young impressionable fans of the deceased celebrity. A younger demographic suffering from suicidal thoughts may be more persuaded to mimic the death style of someone they used to admire. Therefore, as a way of preventing the increase of imitation suicides, the media should be severely limited in disclosing the celebrity’s suicide method.
In this first example, researchers focused on examining the connection between the level of media coverage of a relevant South Korean celebrity suicide and look for snowball effects on the rates of suicides afterward (Lee, JeSuk, et al.). It revealed that after the event of a celebrity suicide, “the number of suicide-related articles reported surged around 80 times in the week” in comparison to the previous (Lee, JeSuk, et al.) Furthermore, the research states that “many articles (37.1%) violated several critical items on the World Health Organization suicide reporting guidelines” highlighting that media articles that were found to be non-compliant with the essential suicide reporting guidelines of the World Health Organization, such as containing a detailed suicide method in their report, led to a significantly higher risk of suicide during the 4 weeks after the celebrity suicide. This indicates the excessive media reporting that violates WHO regulations by detailing suicide methods of a prominent celebrity can be linked as a cause for an increase in copycat suicides and overall suicide rates. It is likely that those media outlets intentionally decide to ignore WHO guidelines despite its well-reasoned warnings to draw interest from a larger public audience by delivering gory details about a popular individual’s death. Thus, the incorporation of stricter punishment for media outlets that choose to ignore WHO regulations and include more gory details is necessary to protect the vulnerable audience they are attempting to reach.
In this next study called “The Impact of Media Reporting of the Suicide of a Singer on Suicide Rates in Taiwan”, one can observe the damaging effect that the irresponsible reporting has on the young target demographic of deceased celebrities by the popularization of certain suicide methods in countries like Taiwan. The purpose of the experiment was to observe whether the widespread “media reporting of the suicide of a young female singer by charcoal burning” had actually increased Taiwan’s suicide rates and whether the singer’s death had produced a high risk of copycat suicide using this same method among a group of young females. The results of the study revealed a significant increase in suicide deaths after the media reporting of the deceased celebrity suicide especially among young females who fell under the same demographic as the dead singer. There was also a noticeable increase in the suicide method of charcoal burning among females. Hence, these findings support my thesis that over-detailed media reporting of a celebrity suicide’s method increases suicide rates in the target demographic of the deceased celebrity as well as popularization of their suicide method most likely due to the aspect of celebrity admiration. Thus, media restraint in depicting the method of a celebrity suicide is vital in improving suicide prevention and reducing copycat suicide behavior.
Moreover, one can observe this same issue in the South Korean population through a study called “The Impact of a Celebrity’s Suicide on the Introduction and Establishment of a New Method of Suicide in South Korea.” (Chen, Ying-Yeh, et al.). The increase in the use of a particular suicide method after the death of a beloved celebrity once again shows that celebrities can trigger a copycat effect in suicide methods with their target audience of young impressionable individuals and the overall general public. This case specifically investigated the increasing popularization of a trend of charcoal burning suicide after the September 2008 death of South Korean celebrity— Ahn Jae-Hwan. They compared the amount of weekly charcoal burning suicides a year before his death which was accounted to be less than 1% and then found that after his death, the amount rose to nearly 5%, particularly in his previous target audience of young males. Thus, the increase in popularity of charcoal burning in South Korean after the highly publicized suicide of Ahh Jae- Hwan provides further support to the notion that celebrity suicides lead to an increase in imitation suicide methods.
Section III: Increasing Imitation Suicide Attempts
In addition to increasing suicide rates and popularizing suicide methods, the overexposure and excessive detailing of a celebrity suicide increases the number of attempted suicides and attempted imitation suicides as well. A recent example of this occurrence can be seen in the 2012 article titled “The Effects of Celebrity Suicide on Copycat Suicide Attempt: A Multi-Center Observational Study” centered around the South Korean population. In this study, they observed the relationship between the media’s reporting style of celebrity suicides and their impact on copycat suicide attempts (Jeong, Joo, et al.).
This information is vital in expanding our perspective on the true level of impact that celebrity deaths can hold since it is also examining the number of attempted suicides and not just the completed ones. Naturally, it is consistent with the other research with its results showing that using “a prediction model using a 4-year nationwide ED database, ED visits for suicide attempts or self-injury increased following the announcements of celebrity suicides” (Jeong, Joo, et al.). This means there was indeed a significant increase in the number of attempted suicides and copycat attempted suicides following the media coverage of the suicide of a prominent celebrity.
This area of research is vital because most research experiments on this topic focus on the number of completed suicides leaving an intellectual gap in our understanding of Werther Effect by insufficiently studying the number of increasing suicides attempts as well. Therefore, further investigation into this topic needed because these numbers can aid in our battle to change media habits on reporting suicides by providing an expanded view on the issue and bringing us closer to the true number of people this is affecting.
Stricter regulations must be enforced on media outlets when reporting the events of a celebrity suicide. Overexposure to the highly publicized news of a celebrity death results in a devasting phenomenon known as the Werther Effect, in which, there is a rise in copycat suicidal behavior including an increase in the number of completed suicides, suicide attempts, and the imitation suicide methods. It is also important to note that many of these research studies originate in Asia which leads to another related question: why is there a higher rate of suicides/suicide attempts in these regions and how can regulation of media improve or exacerbate this? It is especially critical that media restricts their reporting style of more relevant celebrities since research indicates that the more famous a deceased celebrity was then the stronger the public will react to their death which can result in more copycat suicides globally. One example of this would be the suicide of world-famous, Robin Williams, even though he was an American film actor, the impact of his death was felt globally, and media had no play exploits this for profit by overreporting. This resulted in the increase of suicide rates around the world in areas beyond their country of origin in America to influencing individuals in places like India (Harshe, Devavrat, et al.). The over sharing of details in media articles on how a celebrity chooses to commit suicide in a manner that is non-compliant with the WHO guidelines on suicides results in the popularization of that suicide method among the general population. It also targets the mentally vulnerable of the youth demographic who are more suggestive to influence from celebrity’ activities especially if they are already depressed and are thus, more likely to follow a celebrity’s suicidal actions. Moreover, the media reporting style plays a role in increasing the percentage of attempted copycat suicides after a celebrity’s death. Thus, all these facts reveal why one should support stricter media regulations on celebrity suicide reporting. The media must understand the level of impact celebrity’s suicides have on the general public and should therefore, take responsibility in the critical role they play in suicide prevention by reporting celebrity suicides more discretely and less frequently.
King-wa, Fu, and C. H. Chan. “A Study of the Impact of Thirteen Celebrity Suicideson Subsequent Suicide Rates in South Korea from 2005 to 2009.” PLoS One, vol. 8, no. 1,2013. ProQuest, https://remote.baruch.cuny.edu/login?url=https://search-proquecom.remote.baruch.cuny.edu/docview/1327254380?accountid=8500, doi:http://dx.doi.org.remote.baruch.cuny.edu/10.1371/journal.pone.0053870.
Fahey, Robert A, et al. “Tracking the Werther Effect on Social Media: Emotional Responsesto Prominent Suicide Deaths on Twitter and Subsequent Increases in Suicide.” Social Science & Medicine, vol. 219, 2018, pp. 19–29.
Ueda, Michiko, et al. “Tweeting Celebrity Suicides: Users’ Reaction to Prominent Suicide Deaths on Twitter and Subsequent Increases in Actual Suicides.” Social Science & Medicine, vol. 189, Sept. 2017, pp. 158–166. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1016/j.socscimed.2017.06.032.
Phillips, David P. “The Influence of Suggestion on Suicide: Substantive and Theoretical Implications of the Werther Effect.” American Sociological Review, vol. 39, no. 3, 1974, pp. 340–354. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2094294. Accessed 9 Apr. 2020.
Harshe, Devavrat, et al. “Celebrity Suicide and its Effect on further Media Reporting and Portrayal of Suicide: An Exploratory Study.” Indian Journal of Psychiatry, vol. 58, no. 4, 2016. ProQuest, https://remote.baruch.cuny.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest- com.remote.baruch.cuny.edu/docview/1854816082?accountid=8500, doi:http://dx.doi.org.remote.baruch.cuny.edu/10.4103/0019-5545.196704.
Lee, JeSuk, et al. “To What Extent Does the Reporting Behavior of the Media Regarding a Celebrity Suicide Influence Subsequent Suicides in South Korea?” Suicide & Life-Threatening Behavior, vol. 44, no. 4, Aug. 2014, pp. 457–472. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1111/sltb.12109
Chen, Ying-Yeh, et al. “The Impact of Media Reporting of the Suicide of a Singer on Suicide Rates in Taiwan.” Social Psychiatry & Psychiatric Epidemiology, vol. 47, no. 2, Feb. 2012, pp. 215–221. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1007/s00127-010-0331-y.
Jeong, Joo, et al. “The Effects of Celebrity Suicide on Copycat Suicide Attempt: A Multi-Center Observational Study.” Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology: The International Journal for Research in Social and Genetic Epidemiology and Mental Health Services, vol. 47, no. 6, June 2012, pp. 957–965. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1007/s00127-011-0403-7.
Arendt, Florian, and Sebastian Scherr. “The Impact of a Highly Publicized Celebrity Suicide on Suicide-Related Online Information Seeking.” Crisis: The Journal of Crisis Intervention and Suicide Prevention, vol. 38, no. 3, 2017, pp. 207–209.
Pirkis, Jane, et al. “Media Guidelines on the Reporting of Suicide.” Crisis: The Journal of Crisis Intervention and Suicide Prevention, vol. 27, no. 2, 2006, pp. 82–87. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1027/0227-5910.27.2.82.
Published June 24, 2021
If you are having thoughts of suicide, the following resources are available here:
- Baruch students can email the counseling center, email@example.com, that they are in crisis to be connected to a counselor.
- Outside of office hours, call NYC WELL at 1-888-692-9355 for free, immediate and confidential support.
- If you’re in the U.S. you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
- To find a helpline outside of the U.S. visit https://findahelpline.com/i/iasp