Sumner SA, Burke M, Kooti F. Adherence to suicide reporting guidelines by news shared on a social networking platform. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 2020 Dec 14;117(117). 16267-16272. PMID: 32631982 [PubMed] PMCID: PMC7368318
Rates of suicide in the United States are at a more than 20-y high. Suicide contagion, or spread of suicide-related thoughts and behaviors through exposure to sensationalized and harmful content is a well-recognized phenomenon. Health authorities have published guidelines for news media reporting on suicide to help prevent contagion; however, uptake of recommendations remains limited. A key barrier to widespread voluntary uptake of suicide-reporting guidelines is that more sensational content is perceived to be more engaging to readers and thus enhances publisher visibility and engagement; however, no empirical information exists on the actual influence of adherence to safe-reporting practices on reader engagement. Hence, we conducted a study to analyze adherence to suicide-reporting guidelines on news shared on social media and to assess how adherence affects reader engagement. Our analysis of Facebook data revealed that harmful elements were prevalent in news articles about suicide shared on social media while the presence of protective elements was generally rare. Contrary to popular perception, closer adherence to safe-reporting practices was associated with a greater likelihood of an article being reshared (adjusted odds ratio [AOR] = 1.19, 95% confidence interval [CI] = 1.10 to 1.27) and receiving positive engagement ("love" reactions) (AOR = 1.20, 95% CI = 1.13 to 1.26). Mean safe-reporting scores were lower in the US than other English-speaking nations and variation existed by publisher characteristics. Our results provide empirical evidence that improved adherence to suicide-reporting guidelines may benefit not only the health of individuals, but also support publisher goals of reach and engagement.