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Please don't underestimate the media effect - Response to the PLoS article “Media Portrayals of Suicide”

Posted by plosmedicine on 01 Apr 2009 at 10:54 GMT

Author of comment: Fu KW, Yip PSF
Institution: HKJC Centre for Suicide Research and Prevention, The University of Hong Kong

This comment was emailed to the PLoS Medicine staff on 26 March 2009.

We appreciate the effort and the consideration of the PLoS Medicine editors on minimizing copycat effect potentially caused by the mass media coverage of a newly released PLoS Medicine article about the risk for suicide among military discharge [1]. This cautious move is in line with the principles stated in the media recommendations in reporting suicide news endorsed by the World Health Organization [2].

However, the remark made by the corresponding author of the article who suggested that it is unlikely to have copycat effect caused by publishing a research finding of large-scale epidemiological study [3] could be unfounded and we are very concerned of some of the myths in the discussion of the whole issue of suicide reporting.

On the basis of the best available evidence and review so far, the media impact has been found more profound where there is prominent, repetitive and sensational media coverage, and/or similarity between media model and observer in terms of age, gender, personal problems or background [4]. In the media coverage on the research of suicidal risk of military discharge, journalists may interview real cases in addition to reporting the data in order to make their stories different and special from competitors. A vulnerable military discharge who read such a media story strongly connected to his/her background may pay more attention to the coverage, identify with the story’s character, may be motivated to think about suicide as an option to resolve his/her problem, and may be prone to become suicidal [5].

Another comment argues that the existing evidence on media effect is “epidemiologically weak” [3] is also not true. There are recent publications of population-based ecological studies [6,7,8], time-series analyses [9,10,11], panel study of randomized community sample [5], and meta-analyses [12,13,14] which have demonstrated convincingly the epidemiologically link between the extensive coverage of suicide news and the excessive number of suicide afterwards. All these updated researches have provided important information to reassess the quality of evidence for the research of media portrayal of suicides.


1. Kapur N, While D, Blatchley N, Bray I, Harrison K (2009) Suicide after Leaving the UK Armed Forces -A Cohort Study. PLoS Med 6: e26.

2. World Health Organization (2008) Preventing Suicide: A Resource for Media Professionals: Department of Mental Health, Social Change and Mental Health, WHO.

3. The PLoS Medicine Editors (2009) Media Portrayals of Suicide. PLoS Med 6: e1000051.

4. Hawton K, Williams K (2002) Influences of the media on suicide. BMJ 325: 1374-1375.

5. Fu KW, Chan YY, Yip PSF (2009) Testing a Theoretical Model based on Social Cognitive Theory for Media Influence on Suicidal Ideation: Results from a Panel Study. Media Psychology 12: 26-49.

6. Hawton K, Harriss L, Appleby L, Juszczak E, Simkin S, et al. (2000) Effect of death of Diana, princess of Wales on suicide and deliberate self-harm. Br J Psychiatry 177: 463-466.

7. Cheng AT, Hawton K, Lee CT, Chen TH (2007) The influence of media reporting of the suicide of a celebrity on suicide rates: a population-based study. Int J Epidemiol 36: 1229-1234.

8. Yip PSF, Fu KW, Yang KCT, Ip BYT, Chan CLW, et al. (2006) The effects of a celebrity suicide on suicide rates in Hong Kong. J Affect Disord 93: 245-252.

9. Hagihara A, Tarumi K, Abe T (2007) Media suicide-reports, Internet use and the occurrence of suicides between 1987 and 2005 in Japan. BMC Public Health 7: 321.

10. Hawton K, Simkin S, Deeks JJ, O'Connor S, Keen A, et al. (1999) Effects of a drug overdose in a television drama on presentations to hospital for self poisoning: time series and questionnaire study. BMJ 318: 972-977.

11. Niederkrotenthaler T, Sonneck G (2007) Assessing the impact of media guidelines for reporting on suicides in Austria: interrupted time series analysis. Aust N Z J Psychiatry 41: 419-428.

12. Fu KW, Yip PS Estimating the risk for suicide following the suicide deaths of three Asian entertainment celebrities: A meta-analysis approach. Journal of Clinical Psychiatry (in press).

13. Stack S (2000) Media impacts on suicide: A quantitative review of 293 findings. Soc Sci Q 81: 957-971.

14. Stack S (2005) Suicide in the media: a quantitative review of studies based on non-fictional stories. Suicide Life Threat Behav 35: 121-133.

No competing interests declared.