Media coverage and speculation about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on suicide: A content analysis of UK news
Marzano, L., Hawley, M., Fraser, L., Lainez, Y., Marsh, J., & Hawton, K.
Objectives Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been much concern and speculation about rises in suicide rates, despite evidence that suicides did not in fact increase in the first year of the pandemic in most countries with real-time suicide data. This public narrative is potentially harmful, as well as misleading, and is likely to be perpetuated by sensational news coverage. Method Using a bespoke database, we analysed the quality and content of print and online UK news (including opinion pieces) on the impact of COVID-19 on suicidality, based on adherence to international recommendations. χ2 tests were conducted to examine variability in relation to key characteristics (eg, type of publication) and to four ‘restriction phases’ (based on UK government official lockdown measures) over the first 14 months of the pandemic. Results We identified 372 stories about COVID-19 and suicidality in online and print news between the first UK lockdown (March 2020) and May 2021 (when restrictions were significantly eased in the UK). Throughout this period, over a third of articles (39.2%) and headlines (41.4%) claimed or predicted a rise in suicide, often attributed to feelings of entrapment and poor mental health (especially among young people) and fueled by expert commentary and speculation. Almost a third of reports were rated as being of negative quality (116, 31.2%), and at least half included no signposting to help and support. However, reporting improved in phases of less stringent COVID-19 restrictions and over time, with later articles and headlines including fewer negative statements and predictions about rises in suicides, and greater reliance on academic evidence. Conclusions As the longer-term consequences of the pandemic develop, and other national and global events unfold, it is increasingly important that the media, and the wider community of experts shaping its narratives, strive for a positive and evidence-informed approach to news coverage of suicide.