Background: Previous studies have shown that suicide reporting in mainstream media has a significant impact on suicidal behaviors (eg, irresponsible suicide reporting can trigger imitative suicide). Traditional mainstream media are increasingly using social media platforms to disseminate information on public-related topics, including health. However, there is little empirical research on how mainstream media portrays suicide on social media platforms and the quality of their coverage.
Objective: This study aims to explore the characteristics and quality of suicide reporting by mainstream publishers via social media in China.
Methods: Via the application programming interface of the social media accounts of the top 10 Chinese mainstream publishers (eg, People’s Daily and Beijing News), we obtained 2366 social media posts reporting suicide. This study conducted content analysis to demonstrate the characteristics and quality of the suicide reporting. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines, we assessed the quality of suicide reporting by indicators of harmful information and helpful information.
Results: Chinese mainstream publishers most frequently reported on suicides stated to be associated with conflict on their social media (eg, 24.47% [446/1823] of family conflicts and 16.18% [295/1823] of emotional frustration). Compared with the suicides of youth (730/1446, 50.48%) and urban populations (1454/1588, 91.56%), social media underreported suicides in older adults (118/1446, 8.16%) and rural residents (134/1588, 8.44%). Harmful reporting practices were common (eg, 54.61% [1292/2366] of the reports contained suicide-related words in the headline and 49.54% [1172/2366] disclosed images of people who died by suicide). Helpful reporting practices were very limited (eg, 0.08% [2/2366] of reports provided direct information about support programs).
Conclusions: The suicide reporting of mainstream publishers on social media in China broadly had low adherence to the WHO guidelines. Considering the tremendous information dissemination power of social media platforms, we suggest developing national suicide reporting guidelines that apply to social media. By effectively playing their separate roles, we believe that social media practitioners, health institutions, social organizations, and the general public can endeavor to promote responsible suicide reporting in the Chinese social media environment.