Celebrities exert a great deal of influence. They can start popular trends and spread awareness of certain ideas. It makes sense that someone who receives so much media attention could have a lot of influence over the general public. That idea seems innocent enough: people enjoy living vicariously through the fantastical lives of people like Brad Pitt or Beyonce, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But when the media use someone’s name and the loss of a life just to attract attention, then a much larger issue is created.
In August 2014, world-renowned comedian and actor Robin Williams took his own life at the age of 63. In early 2018, Time Magazine covered a study released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stating that suicide rates in the United States coincidentally increased by more than 10 percent in the four months following Williams’ death. Within that percentage, there was a large spike in suicide among middle aged men.
This isn’t the only time that a famous person has taken his or her life and an increase in suicide within the population has followed. A Vox article entitled, “How the media Covers Celebrity Suicides can Have Life-or-Death Consequences,” mentions a 12 percent increase in suicide rates after Marilyn Monroe’s death in 1962.
While it cannot be scientifically proven that celebrities’ deaths are actually to blame for the increased rates, statistical coincidences show a correlation between celebrity deaths and suicide rates. This is the “copycat effect,” in which those already struggling with the idea of suicide unfortunately become inspired by the news.
The Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health conducted studies intended to determine exactly how much greater the effect of a celebrity’s death is compared to that of the average person and determined that “the entertainment celebrity, in particular, has the greatest impact on copycat suicide.” According to a reference group approach, if a Marilyn Monroe with all her fame and fortune cannot endure life, the suicidal person may say ‘Why should I?’”
The blame here cannot be placed on the celebrities, but rather the media.
The blame here cannot be placed on the celebrities, but rather the media that report on these deaths. News outlets often have sensationalized the idea of suicide in the articles to drive traffic to the websites. This decline of responsible reporting reflects a lack of consideration for those struggling with the idea of taking their own lives.
The CDC actually has published a set of guidelines for when a suicide by a person of great significance should be reported. A lot of the rules are obvious, like not providing the technical details of the suicide or suggesting that anything is “quick or painless,” avoiding dramatic language (especially in the headlines) and including links to phone numbers for support groups.
According to the previously mentioned Vox article, “We have decades of robust, replicated, international research showing that these details matter. When people in a vulnerable state are bombarded by reports of the specific details of a suicide, including the method, it triggers ideation and action.”
Issues arise when the media do not follow these guidelines. A 2015 UK study (later revised in 2016), titled “Online Media Reporting of Suicides: Analysis of Adherence to Existing Guidelines,” looked at 229 articles within the UK from both local and national publications and found that 199 of the articles did not follow at least one of the CDC guidelines.
“The most commonly breached aspects of the guidelines were a failure to include reference to sources of support for those considering suicide (69.4 percent), the inclusion of excessive technical detail about the method used (31 percent) and undue speculation about the reasons for suicide (30.1 percent),” according to the study. The other guidelines were breached in less than 25 percent of articles, with just two articles mentioning organizations that promote suicide and one article using statistics irresponsibly, telling readers the proportion of people completing suicide after jumping from a well-known landmark.”
This lack of consideration in reporting has the ability to contribute to 18,690 people taking their lives after the death of Robin Williams. The CDC guidelines need to be followed by the media. Otherwise, the consequences may be deadly.