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Reporting on Suicide Between 1819 and 1944

Suicide Rates, the Press, and Possible Long-Term Werther Effects in Austria

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Abstract.Background: Suicide rates increased substantially in many countries during the 19th century. Little is known about news coverage on suicide in this period and its relationship to suicide rates. Aims: To test whether there was a covariation between the quantity of reporting and suicide rates and whether the press relied on sensational reporting. Method: A content analysis of Austrian news coverage between 1819 and 1944 was conducted and compared with contemporary findings. Results: There were similar corresponding troughs and peaks in both time series, indicative of covariation. The analysis revealed that variations in the quantity of reporting predicted the following year's suicide rates, a pattern consistent with a long-term Werther effect. Conversely, suicide rates did not predict future values of the quantity of reporting. Furthermore, the press substantially overrepresented "vivid" firearm suicides compared with other more "pallid" methods such as drowning, indicative of sensational reporting. Limitations: The causal order of the quantity of reporting and suicide rates should be interpreted with caution. Conclusion: The press may have contributed to the establishment of suicide as a mass phenomenon in the 19th century. The contemporary comparison is indicative of temporal stability.