When not to tell a detailed, emotional and human story

Posted by Kevin Bishop - July 18, 2012
Filed in Business storytelling

Suicide ranks as the 10th leading cause of death globally. *1
On top of well-established risk factors for suicide (e.g. depression, previous suicide attempts, negative life events, socio-economic disadvantage), there is considerable evidence that the way the media reports on the suicide can significantly impact on the number of subsequent ‘copycat’ suicides.
The occurrence of copycat suicides following media stories is known as the ‘Werther effect‘. This is taken from Goethe’s novel ‘The Sorrows of Young Werther’ published in 1774. In the novel, Werther the hero, committed suicide causing many young male suicides who employed exactly the same method as Werther. This lead to the novel being banned in many European states.
In their 2010 paper “Role of media reports in completed and prevented suicide: Werther v. Papageno effects” Thomas Niederkrotenthaler et. al. undertook research in Austria to understand how the way stories were told by the media impacted on copycat suicide rates. *2
They obtained reports from the 11 largest Austrian newspapers that included the term suicide between 1st January and the 30th June 2005. They found 497 items on which to base their research. They then examined these reports based on several media reporting characteristics they have previously been shown to be associated with an increase in suicides.
These characteristics were:
- Quantity of reporting (i.e. repetition and density)
- Main focus of the article (i.e. completed suicide; attempted suicide etc.)
- Reported method (how the person actually committed suicide)
- Prominence (where in the paper the story was i.e. located on the front page)
They then did a quantitative analysis aimed at measuring associations between item contents and suicide rates. They got daily data on suicides for each Austrian federal state and measured the difference between the suicide rates in the week preceding the publication date and in the week after publication.
A summary of their main findings were:
1. Suicide rates went up when:
- there was repetitive reporting of the suicide
- there was reporting on the method of suicide (especially if it was jumping)
- items explicitly stating that societal problems related to suicide are increasing
- items reporting several independent suicidal acts
- there was language referring to a suicide epidemic
2. Suicide rates did not go up, or even went down, when there was:
- a main focus of the item was on suicidal ideation
- a main focus on suicide research
- items containing contact information for a public support service
- the reporting of expert opinions
The things that made suicide rates to remain the same, or even go down, after reporting of a suicide, the authors have labelled the ‘Papageno effect‘, after a character in Mozart’s opera ‘The Magic Flute’. In the opera Papageno becomes suicidal upon fearing the loss of his beloved Papagena; however, he refrains from suicide because of three boys who draw his attention to alternative coping strategies. They believe this is where the media should be focussing their attention.
So what you focus on and how you tell the story directly impacts whether other people who read the story will, or will not try and commit suicide. The more human you make the story (i.e. the name of the person) the more likely you will trigger other suicides. The more detailed you make the story (i.e. the method used, the location) the more likely other people will use the same method or go to the same spot. The more you talk about the emotional impact of the event (i.e. the effects on the family or friends of the victim) the more likely people will commit suicide to make their family and friends feel that way too.
These are some of the elements we talk about on our blog and training courses that make up a great story – human, emotional and detailed. However, in the case of reporting suicides, these are the last things you want to do.
Note:
For advice on media reporting of suicide in Australia please refer here.
For help or information on suicide (within Australia) please visit beyondblue.org.au, or call Lifeline on 131 114.
References:
*1. Murray, C.J.L., & Lopez, A.D. (Eds.) (1996). The Global Burden of Disease: A Comprehensive Assessment of Mortality and Disability from Diseases, Injuries, and Risk Factors in 1990 and Projected to 2020. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
*2. Niederkrotenthaler T., Voracek M., Herberth A., Till B., Strauss M., Etzersdorfer E., Eisenwort B., Sonneck G. (2010). ”Role of media reports in completed and prevented suicide: Werther v. Papageno effects”. British Journal of Psychiatry, 197(3), 234-43.

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One Response to “When not to tell a detailed, emotional and human story”

  1. Moya Sayer-Jones Says:

    Great post Kevin: thanks.