Last week, The Daily Mail reported that a young NYU student had “jumped naked 15 stories to his death from [his] dorm while high on drugs.” On the same day, Metro reported that an “NYU freshman dies after apparent suicide leap.” These headlines may at first appear to be commonplace, but in reality they are grossly inappropriate descriptions of what they assumed to be suicide.
In dramatizing tragic events, media outlets not only show disrespect to the families of the deceased, but also negatively influence others. The media have a responsibility to address suicide, apparent or otherwise, in a sensitive and non-sensational manner. Ultimately, a suicide was never confirmed in the case of Titan Lee-Hai, but the way the media spoke about his tragic death had a harmful effect.
Studies have shown that certain methods that the media use to portray suicides affect suicidal behavior itself. Keith Hawton and Kathryn Williams wrote in the British Medical Journal that “the impact of the media on suicidal behavior seems to be most likely when a method of suicide is specified.” Both The Daily Mail and Metro expressly specified the process by which Titan Lee-Hai died. Moreover, as Hawton and Williams assert, “younger people seem to be most vulnerable to the influence of the media.” Given the large audience of these two publications and their exposure, clearly they acted irresponsibly in their coverage of last week’s event.
To ameliorate any potentially damaging influence, media outlets must take precautions when reporting on suicide. There are numerous guides from which the nation’s media should take note. Suicide.org notes that media outlets must “be careful about describing the methods used,” and that they should not “go into great detail about the methods” nor “show detailed pictures of the locations where the suicides occurred.” Other guides advise media outlets to avoid “describing a suicide as inexplicable or without warning,” noting that “most, but not all, people who die by suicide exhibit warning signs.” The media have several means through which they can improve their reporting on this sensitive topic. Failing to introduce these important recommendations threatens to lead to inaccurate perceptions of suicide and ultimately may contribute to its frequency.
Media outlets play a large part in shaping our understanding of current events. These recommendations have the potential to dramatically change the way we think and talk about suicide. Changing the way we speak will help prevent future tragedies. There are over 30,000 suicides in the United States per year, a statistic which averages to 94 successful suicides every day. Annually, there are nearly 900,000 attempts. These problems cannot be reduced overnight, but reform in our media can catalyze progress.
A version of this article appeared in the Wednesday, Feb. 5 print edition. Max Chis is a contributing columnist. Email him at [email protected]