Reporting Celebrity Suicides Could Motivate Copycats

Researchers have found that media coverage of a celebrity suicide could incite a large-scale copycat effect.

AsianScientist (Sep. 11, 2014) – Media coverage of celebrity suicides could lead to a subsequent surge in copycat suicides, according to researchers in South Korea. The findings have been published Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior.

Researchers analysed media coverage of the suicide of a national actress in South Korea, a country that has long had a high suicide rate—consistently one of the highest in the world, according to World Health Organization (WHO) reports. The celebrity in question was Choi Jin-sil, one of South Korea’s most popular media personalities before her death. Ms. Choi hanged herself in her bathroom in 2008.

Following her death, there was vast, protracted reporting of her death in domestic Korean media. Further, more than a third of articles were observed by the study’s authors to violate suicide reporting guidelines developed by Korean authorities based on WHO criteria, for example by describing in detail the method of suicide.

They found that the number of suicide-related news stories swelled by over 80 times in the week after the suicide, compared with the week prior. Meanwhile, they approximated at least 430 excess suicides during the first month after the actress’s death.

“This figure is the largest record of cases relating to copycat suicides that has been reported to academic journals,” said Dr. Lee Weon-Young of Chung-Ang University, who co-authored the study. “Most gender and age subgroups were at significantly higher risk of suicide.”

According to the study’s authors, these results indicate that extensive media coverage of high-profile suicides—especially coverage which does not comply with guidelines on suicide reporting—could cause a large-scale copycat effect. This corroborates previous results of similar studies conducted in Hong Kong and Taiwan.

However, it would be difficult to conclusively link celebrity suicides and media reporting of them to a copycat effect. The authors themselves note that the causes of suicide are multiple and complex.

Nonetheless, they warn that compliance to suicide guidelines should be monitored by authorities, and not left to the discretion of journalists and media outlets.

The article can be found at: Lee et al. (2014) To What Extent Does the Reporting Behavior of the Media Regarding a Celebrity Suicide Influence Subsequent Suicides in South Korea?


Copyright: Wiley; Photo: koreanet/Flickr/CC.
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