What’s in a name: how language influences our perception of suicide

Communication scientists show that word choice in media reports on suicide has a measurable impact on public opinion.

In an empirical study published in Social Science & Medicine, an international team of researchers from the University of Munich, KU Leuven and the Medical University of Vienna show that the specific German word used in media reports of suicides has a measurable impact on how readers perceive and evaluate the act of suicide.

The impact of newspaper reports

The authors recruited 451 individuals for the web-based study and divided them into three groups. The participants read short newspaper reports on suicides, which differed from one another only in the German word used to refer to the act itself - Suizid, Selbstmord (’self-murder’) or Freitod (’free death).

The texts given to members of each group used only one of these terms. Participants were then asked to summarise the content of what they’d read in their own words and to fill in the blanks in a word puzzle designed to test implicit memory. Finally, they were asked about their personal attitudes to suicide.

The researchers found that participants favoured the use of the term that they had previously read in the texts assigned to each of them.  

Neutral terms are preferable

The data also provided the first indications that the three German terms actually trigger different associations in readers’ minds.

Participants who’d read the reports that referred to Freitod expressed a more positive view of suicide, given that the term implies a rational decision - a connotation that is controversial, to say the least. The term Selbstmord is not recommended either because of its implicit reference to crime, which may stigmatise people with suicidal thoughts and prevent them from seeking help.

Instead, the researchers recommend the use of the neutral term Suizid.

Not language-specific

So the more neutral, the better. But to what extent can these findings be applied to other languages?

Sebastian Scherr: "All journalists can play a major role in suice prevention, regardless of their language."

"All journalists can play a major role in suicide prevention, regardless of their language," says Professor Sebastian Scherr from the School for Mass Communication Research at KU Leuven. "They should always be careful to choose the least ’loaded’ term when reporting on suicide."

Guidelines for journalists

The awareness of the media’s potential impact has already led to a range of guidelines for news coverage of suicides. The World Health Organization (WHO), for instance, advises not to refer to suicide as "successful" or as a "failed attempt" because these terms imply that death is a desirable outcome. Instead, it is recommended to write "died by suicide."

As for Flemish journalists, the Council for Journalism published a number of recommendations for media reports on suicide in 2007  (in Dutch). These include the advice to use the term zelfdoding (’killing oneself’) rather than zelfmoord (’self-murder’), as the former is perceived to be more neutral - although, according to Professor Scherr, "it still primes suicide as a crime." 

Work to be done

"What’s more: don’t forget that these recommendations are 11 years old. This means that they were published before all of us started using Facebook, Twitter, and other social media. The WHO published an update of its recommendations in 2017, which explicitly addresses these new forms of communication. We have to make sure that our guidelines are up to date." 

Sebastian Scherr: "Don’t forget that these guidelines were published before all of us started using Facebook, Twitter, and other social media."

"But do journalists know these guidelines’ There is no systematic research about whether journalists are aware that these recommendations even exist and how they deal with them. Therefore, one of our next projects is dedicated to finding out the answer to that question."

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