Objectives: When journalists report on the details of a suicide, the way that they contextualize the meaning of the event (i.e. the ‘narrative’) can have significant consequences for readers. The ‘Werther’ and ‘Papageno’ narrative effects refer to increases and decreases in suicides across populations following media reports on suicidal acts or mastery of crises, respectively. The goal of this study was to investigate the impact of these different narrative constructs on subsequent suicides.
Methods: This study examined the change in suicide counts over time in Toronto, Canada. It used latent difference score analysis, examining suicide-related print media reports in the Toronto media market (2011-2014). Articles (N = 6367) were coded as having a potentially harmful narrative if they described suicide in a celebrity or described a suicide death in a non-celebrity and included the suicide method. Articles were coded as having potentially protective narratives if they included at least one element of protective content (e.g. alternatives to suicide) without including any information about suicidal behaviour (i.e. suicide attempts or death).
Results: Latent difference score longitudinal multigroup analyses identified a dose-response relationship in which the trajectory of suicides following harmful ‘Werther’ narrative reports increased over time, while protective ‘Papageno’ narrative reports declined. The latent difference score model demonstrated significant goodness of fit and parameter estimates, with each group demonstrating different trajectories of change in reported suicides over time: (χ2, N = 6367) = 13.16; χ2/df = 2.19; Akaike information criterion = 97.16, comparative fit index = 0.96, root mean square error of approximation = 0.03.
Conclusion: Our findings support the notion that the ‘narrative’ matters when reporting on suicide. Specifically, ‘Werther’ narratives of suicides in celebrities and suicides in non-celebrities where the methods were described were associated with more subsequent suicides while ‘Papageno’ narratives of survival and crisis mastery without depictions of suicidal behaviours were associated with fewer subsequent suicides. These results may inform efforts to prevent imitation suicides.