19.1 Media guidelines to avoid copycat effect

This measure consists of providing journalists with guidelines on how to report on suicides and/or accidents caused by trespass, notably to avoid giving specific information regarding the mode of access, death method, etc. The aim is to avoid the imitation of suicidal behaviour by other people - a contagion effect commonly labelled "copycat suicide" or "Werther effect".
  • Best for the department of health to issue guidelines and not railway undertakings or infrastructure managers.
  • Make sure the guidelines are taught at schools for journalistic studies or communication science.
  • Repeat the message regularly.
  • Give active follow up when media guidelines are not followed and explain why you want media to abide by the guidelines.
  • Train a spokesperson for this type of public communication (for example as part of the normal work of the railway undertaking/infrastructure manager communications department).
  • The measure is likely to have a stable effect as long as guidelines continue to be applied.
  • Local newspapers may be less aware of the implications of what they publish and, sometimes, local media discloses the suicide locations.
  • Pay attention to the new emerging media (i.e. social media such as blogs, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, etc.). Non-professional media represent major constraints because they can defeat the efforts to enforce guidelines.
  • Relationships with the media need to be carefully maintained. If you constantly criticise articles you may lose influence entirely. Sometimes you need to hold back on smaller concerns to ensure media will listen when more significant incidents occur.
  • Compared to the two years before the railway suicide of a famous German football player, the incidence ratio of the number of railway suicidal acts in the 2-year-period following this event increased by 18.8% (95% confidence interval (CI)=11.0–27.1%;p<0.001). The median number of suicidal acts per day increased from 2 to 3 (p<0.001). This effect remains significant after excluding short-term 2-week effects of the celebrity’s suicide. An anniversary effect was not present. The increase of fatal railway suicides between 2007 and 2010 (25%) was significantly different from that for the total number of suicides in Germany (6.6%) (p<0.0001) (Hegerl et al., 2013; Ladwig et al., 2012).
  • The railway suicide of the famous football player in 2009 was followed by increasing train suicide numbers in Europe. An international copycat effect and/or an increased overall awareness about this particular suicide method appears to be one likely explanation for the changes (Koburger et al., 2015).
  • Media coverage over a fatal accident on railway tracks impacts subsequent railway suicide numbers. The daily number of suicidal acts was 43-53% higher during the 2 month index period (following extensive media coverage of a disastrous accident) in comparison to the control period days (Kunrath et al., 2011).
  • Subway suicides were reported doubled in Toronto, following reports of subway suicides occurring between 1970 and 1971. However, after a six-month restriction of reporting of subway suicides, the rate of subway suicides returned to baseline levels (Sarchiapone et al., 2011).
  • Following implementation of guidelines for responsible media reporting on suicide in Vienna in 1987, the number of suicides and suicide attempts in the local subway system dropped by 80% (Etzersdorfer & Sonneck, 1998; Sonneck et al., 1994).
  • There was some evidence of a nationwide impact of the guidelines, calculated as a significant reduction of 81 suicides (95% confidence interval: -149 to -13; t = -2.32, df = 54, p <0.024) annually. This effect was particularly due to a significant reduction in the area with the highest coverage rates of the collaborating newspapers. Viennese subway suicides showed a highly significant level shift (t = -4.44, df = 19, p <0.001) and a highly significant trend change (t = -4.20, df = 19, p <0.001) after the introduction of the guidelines. These effects corresponded to significant changes in the quality and quantity of media reporting (Niederkrotenthaler & Sonneck, 2007).
  • Media stories about how people coped positively with suicidal feelings have decreased the levels of suicide in the general population (Niederkrotenthaler et al., 2010).
  • A Swiss study looked at the effects of the implementation of media guidelines and found that though the number of articles on suicide had increased the quality of the coverage had significantly improved: reports were less sensational, shorter and lesser on the front page (Andriessen, 2011).
  • The media reporting of suicide was synchronized with increased suicide deaths during major suicide events such as celebrity death, and slightly lagged behind the suicide deaths for 1 month in other periods without notable celebrity deaths. The means of suicide reported in the media diversely affected the suicide models. Reports of charcoal burning suicide exhibited an exclusive copycat effect on actual charcoal burning deaths, whereas media reports of jumping had a wide association with various suicide models. Media reports of suicide had a higher association with suicide deaths in urban than in rural areas (Yang et al., 2013).
  • Imitation effects were most clearly observable in the groups whose age and sex were closest to those of the model. Over extended periods (up to 70 days after the first episode), the number of railway suicides increased most sharply among 15- to 19-year-old males (up to 175%). The effect steadily decreased in the older age groups, so that no effect was observable for males over 40 years and females over 30 years. (Schmidtke & Häfner, 1988).
  • In the Netherlands, the work of van Houwelingen (2011) provides extensive research and proof in favour of media guidelines.
  • In 2011, INFRABEL   in Belgium issued guidelines to all journalists chief editors and editorial staff with whom they had regular contact. Since then, journalists have been following these guidelines well. There have been few instances where journalists have deviated from these guidelines and where this has been the case INFRABEL   have contacted them to rectify it. In retrospect, this approach has worked well, since the majority of journalists respect these guidelines in their reporting.
  • In Sweden, there are ethical rules for the press that speak about care when publishing information about suicides.
  • In France, there is an ongoing "Papageno programme" which raises awareness among journalism students on how to report responsibly on suicide cases.
  • In Canada, despite suicide rates declining at a viaduct reducing following the introduction of barriers the study reported an increase the following year after media reports of suicide at the viaduct (Sinyor et al 2017).

last update: 2022-06-01 Print