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Has quality of suicide reporting by print media changed in India? A re-examination of previous findings

1 Department of Psychiatry, D. Y. Patil Medical College, D. Y. Patil Education Society (Deemed University), Kolhapur, Maharashtra, India
2 Department of Psychiatry, Santiniketan Medical College, West Bengal, India
3 Department of Psychiatry, Jawaharlal Nehru Medical College, Wardha, Maharashtra, India

Date of Submission28-Nov-2022
Date of Decision22-Dec-2022
Date of Acceptance01-Jan-2023
Date of Web Publication17-Mar-2023

Correspondence Address:
Devavrat Harshe,
Department of Psychiatry, D. Y. Patil Medical College, D. Y. Patil Education Society (Deemed University), Kolhapur, Maharashtra
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/aip.aip_196_22


Background: Suicide is a serious mental health problem in India, and suicide rates in India have risen over the past decades. Reporting of suicide by the media is a common cause for spurts of suicides that may occur. Methodology: Suspected suicide by the renowned actor Sushant Singh Rajput was selected as the reference case. The top two Indian daily newspapers published in English having the highest circulation as per data provided by the Registrar of Newspapers, Government of India, were selected to be part of the study. The authors screened all news stories in the two newspapers within a 6-month period (3 months prior and 3 months post the date of the reference suicide case), and these news reports were evaluated as per the suicide reporting guidelines for media laid down by the Indian Psychiatric Society. The data were analyzed using Chi-square test and descriptive statistics where appropriate. Results: Our search yielded 158 articles from a period of 6 months, with 50 articles published before the suspected celebrity suicide and 108 published after. 29.7% had the word suicide in headline, 14.6% of them had news printed on the first page, 17.7% had a suicide note mentioned, whereas 1.9% mentioned prior attempts by victim. Conclusions: There is no change in media trend toward reporting suicide as noted following postcelebrity suicide, and so it is essential that media follow guidelines stringently when reporting a serious problem like suicide.

Keywords: Celebrity suicide, media, newspaper, suicide, suicide attempt

How to cite this URL:
Nair AS, Kaur D, Ravindran NP, Halder A, Harshe D, Behere PB. Has quality of suicide reporting by print media changed in India? A re-examination of previous findings. Ann Indian Psychiatry [Epub ahead of print] [cited 2023 Apr 1]. Available from: https://www.anip.co.in/preprintarticle.asp?id=371887

  Introduction Top

In India, nearly 150,000 individuals die by suicide every year with devastating socioeconomic consequences.[1] It is the highest among countries worldwide.[2],[3] Suicidal behavior has biopsychosocial causation. Not everyone in difficult circumstances contemplates suicide.[3] Prior psychological distress, personality, comorbid psychiatric illness such as depression, or anxiety symptoms and history of negative life events in addition to genetic vulnerability may trigger suicidal ideation or behavior. Other factors such as the media have been linked to play a vital role in suicide propagation, if not causation.[3]

Media reporting of suicides has gained considerable attention as an important factor in propagation of suicidal behavior, also often called as “copycat suicides,” known as the “Werther effect.” This effect is particularly pronounced when the coverage is detailed, prominently placed, uses sensationalist language, explicitly describes the suicide method or location of death, and includes photographs of the victim or location.[1] On the other hand, sensible media reporting of suicide along with media involvement in spreading preventive information has shown to minimize propagation effects and to be effective in reducing suicide deaths.[2] This includes reporting upon how people could adopt alternative coping strategies to deal with life stresses or depressed mood along with sharing links of educative websites or suicide helplines.[2] Media reporting of suicide-related preventive information has been associated with positive effects on subsequent suicide rates and ideation. This is described as the Papageno effect, and acts as a counterforce to the Werther effect.[2] A strong evidence for the Werther effect operating through traditional news media has been observed and the impact is usually at a maximum shortly after the report and levels off after 2 weeks.[4],[5] A meta-analysis exploring the association between media reporting suicide and its impact showed the adverse impact of such reports to persist for a year of a celebrity suicide, and the affected individuals may adopt the same method for suicides as used by the celebrity in reports.[3] Reasons for Werther effect have been hypothesized to be, consciously avoiding highlighting positive and mental health angles in reporting suicides, repetitive reporting of the same suicide over time, and normalizing suicides in times of stress or failure.[6]

Published works on the quality of media reporting of suicides in India have generally shown poor adherence to suicide reporting recommendations.[1],[7],[8] A study 5 years ago showed that adherence to reporting guidelines reduces after death by suicide by a celebrity.[7] The last 5 years has also seen a steep rise in suicide rates in India[9],[10] which was worsened by the significant geopolitical crisis due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The last 5 years also saw the passing and implementation of the Mental Healthcare Act 2017 (MHCA) by the Government of India.[11] This led to the landmark decision to decriminalize suicide and treat every suicide as a sign of severe psychological stress unless proven otherwise. The act in Section 24 (1) forbids publication of photographs of persons with mentally ill without his/her consent to protect the rights of patients. There is a need, therefore, to evaluate the adherence to suicide reporting in print media taking the aforementioned changes in context. This study, therefore, attempts to re-examine the findings obtained in earlier studies[7],[8] in present times.

  Methodology Top

The study followed a retrospective design. All ethical concerns were addressed as per study requirements. The data were acquired from the public domain which involved a screening of newspaper reports and articles. Individual interview of the subjects was not done. This study being a media evaluation, was discussed with five senior psychiatrists, of which three were external and independent to the study. Everyone had over 25 years of experience in the clinical research in psychiatry. Their suggestions and comments were considered before final protocol drafting.

Based on a prior study, a celebrity suicide case was selected within a 2-year period (July 1, 2019–July 31, 2021) as per an operational definition[9] after discussion with the five senior psychiatrists. The reference case in our study was the alleged suicide by the renowned actor Sushant Singh Rajput on June 14, 2020. The top two Indian daily newspapers published in English having the highest circulation as per data provided by the Registrar of Newspapers, Government of India,[10] were selected to be part of the study. These were the Times of India – Mumbai edition and Bombay Times. The date of the alleged suicide was selected as the reference point in our case (June 20, 2020). The authors then screened all news stories in the two newspapers within a 6-month period (3 months prior and 3 months post the date of the reference suicide case). The period of 3 months before and after was determined on the basis of studies that have shown the Werther effect from a celebrity suicide to last from 6 to 9 weeks.[11],[12] Suicides reported along with the suicide of the celebrity on the same day (June 14, 2020) were excluded. The inclusion criterion for newspaper articles in the study was that the article or news report must cover a suicide event or an event where there is an attempted suicide. The news stories were then analyzed for content based on the guidelines given as per the Indian Psychiatric Society.[9] The guidelines were included in the analysis of news stories and were described as follows:


The presence of a special box for the news item in the paper, those news having being printed on the front page, and the word “suicide” in the headline were included.

Excessive details

These details consisted of methods of suicide being described in the headline, the mention of a suicide note, the note being quoted, detailed description of the method of committing suicide, reference to prior suicide attempts by the same person, and detailed interviews of survivors.

Sensational and trivialized reporting

This included using of catchphrases and adjectives, the photograph of the victim, the word suicide in the headline, the use of an illustration and graphic in the description, the location photograph, blame being put on an isolated event, and suicide being portrayed as the coping mechanism.


This included the warning signs mentioned, the treatment options and preventive methods described, the pain and grief of the family members described, the role of psychiatric illness mentioned, the role of a suicide helpline, and alternative methods of coping with the same stress discussed.

Suicide as a crime

All the authors read all the articles and confirmed adherence of the same with respect to the guidelines as mentioned above. All of the variables mentioned above were converted into a yes/no question. All news items were numbered and then further read in detail randomly by a computer randomization list by any of the two authors and were rated on all the variables as mentioned above. In the case of any dilemma, a third authors' opinion was taken. The data were then collected and analyzed using descriptive statistics and Chi-square test where needed.

  Results Top

Our search yielded 158 articles from a period of 6 months, with 50 articles published before the suspected celebrity suicide (SCS) and 108 published after. Completed suicide was reported by 123 (77.8%) articles, whereas the rest (35, 22.2%) reported either a parasuicide, or suicidal thoughts/ideations, or survivor stories. One hundred and fifty-two (96%) stories reported suicide involving one victim, whereas 6 (3.8%) stories reported suicides involving 2 individuals.

Suicide reporting quality parameters

Prominence given to the news

We observed that after the SCS, a significantly more number of such stories were published on the first pages of papers (P<0.028) than it was previously before the incident. We also observed a rise (although not statistically significant) in number of stories carrying the word “suicide” in headlines (33 vs. 22%, P = 0.102) after the SCS.

Explicit details provided about the event

We found no significant difference in number of stories published before and after the SCS in terms of (1) describing the method of suicide in a step-by-step manner (20 vs. 18%, P = 0.438) and (2) referring to other suicides at the location or by that method in recent past (4 vs. 9.5%, P = 0.205). We however observed that significantly more number of stories published after the SCS carried the victim's photograph either from the scene of suicide, or obtained from his relatives/social media (17.5 vs. 5%, P = 0.038).

Suicide reported with focus on mental health awareness

Stories published before as well as after the SCS, did not differ in numbers in their tendency to blame an external factor for suicide (35 vs. 30%, P = 0.367).

Minority of the stories published before and after SCS recorded bereavers interview (16 vs 16.5%, P =0.557) did not differ significantly, in terms of mentioning warning signs of suicide, pain of suicide survivors.

Criminality and suicide

We observed that articles published before as well as after the SCS used the word “committed” to describe the suicide in their stories (20 vs. 12%, P = 0.141). One story published after the SCS mentioned the fact that suicide has been decriminalized from India in the MHCA 2017.

  Discussion Top

This study examined whether a change has occurred in the adherence to suicide reporting guidelines in print media in India. We used a study published exactly 5 years ago[7] as a benchmark to compare our results.

The first observation we had was regarding portrayal of suicide as a criminal act. We found that nearly 22% of stories mentioned quotes from law enforcement agencies, and the numbers did not change after the SCS event [Table 1]. We also found that only one story (0.6%) mentioned that, under the MHCA 2017,[13] suicides have been decriminalized under Section 115. This observation was absent from the earlier study, as it was published prior to MHCA 2017 being passed by the government, and therefore not being in effect. It is vital that the community at large, health-care providers, and law enforcement be aware of this progressive step, so that the prevailing stigma about seeking help[14] reduces and the acceptance toward suicide survivors, their mental health needs, and safety concerns are preserved. This step may also lead to mass awareness campaign on part of government agencies, which may lead to better access to mental health care for survivors of suicide, or individuals having suicidal ideations or thoughts.[15] One positive finding in this paper is a reduction in use of the phrase “committed suicide” to about a third after the SCS, and overall coverage during the study period. The said phrase has significant semiotic importance, as it (1) places the entire responsibility for the action on the person and (2) it sounds similar to saying “committed a crime.” This positive change in suicide coverage is indeed welcome.
Table 1: Overall percentage of stories and percentage change after a story of a celebrity suicide

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Suicide news is often given an undue prominence in the media. We, therefore, compared the degree to which print media in India follow this trend. We found that on all three subheadings, (1) printing the story on the first page and (2) inside a demarcated box as well as (3) mentioning the word suicide in the headline or tagline, numbers have not changed much over the past 5 years. In fact, we found that this time, the magnitude of increase in such reporting post a SCS was much more than it was noticed 5 years ago. Another factor that is hypothetically linked to suicide ideation propagation is providing excessive and step-by-step description and details about suicide. We noted that more than 15% of stories published followed this trend. These included providing a description of the method and instrument used for suicide, mentioning a suicide note, and quoting directly from the suicide note to note a few. These practices directly affect the vulnerable individuals, and help them identify with the case in focus.

One observation from the study was the fact that dissemination of information regarding mental health helps resources for preventing suicide. These included mention of suicide helplines, stories of people who overcame suicidal ideations or attempts, talking about warning signs for suicide, and speaking about pain experienced by survivors. Although <7% of stories followed these practices, their occurrence rose significantly after the SCS.

To summarize, we found that media adherence to suicide reporting guidelines has not shown a significant shift over the past 5 years. Certain trends, such as informing the readers about the mental health aspect of suicides and avoiding using the word “committed,” are positive signs that media coverage of suicide can improve with training and sensitization. This study has certain limitations; first being, it only analyzed two representative English daily newspapers, so a larger sample across languages may yield different results and different degrees of adherence to guidelines.

Financial support and sponsorship


Conflicts of interest

There are no conflicts of interest.

  References Top

Menon V, Kar SK, Varadharajan N, Kaliamoorthy C, Pattnaik JI, Sharma G, et al. Quality of media reporting following a celebrity suicide in India. J Public Health (Oxf) 2022;44:e133-40.  Back to cited text no. 1
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Kim JH, Park EC, Nam JM, Park S, Cho J, Kim SJ, et al. The werther effect of two celebrity suicides: An entertainer and a politician. PLoS One 2013;8:e84876.  Back to cited text no. 11
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    -  Nair AS
    -  Kaur D
    -  Ravindran NP
    -  Halder A
    -  Harshe D
    -  Behere PB
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