When celebrities die by suicide, how much detail should be reported?

The deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain this week were jarring to many people and resulted in heavy media coverage. But the way the media report on celebrity suicides can have a big effect, one expert says.

Media have an obligation to draw distinction between public's desire to know and need to know, author says

When celebrities like Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade take their own lives, the news media rush to find out what happened. But how much detail do we really need to know? And how should the media be reporting on suicide responsibly? Watch The Investigators Saturdays at 9:30 pm ET and Sundays at 5:30 pm ET on CBC News Network. 3:16

By one measure, celebrities are successful when we feel a connection to them.

For the same reason that we buy the products they promote or mimic their style, it can feel remarkably jarring and personal when we learn a celebrity has died.

Perhaps no more so than when we learn they have taken their own lives.

On Tuesday, news broke that fashion designer Kate Spade had done just that inside her Manhattan apartment.

Barely 72 hours later, celebrity chef, author and CNN personality Anthony Bourdain made headlines for the same reason, after he was found dead in a hotel room in France.

"We know that the way we report on celebrity suicides can have a big effect," said Jennifer Michael Hecht, who has written extensively about suicide, including the book Stay: A history of suicide and the philosophies against it.

Designer Kate Spade poses with handbags and shoes from her own collection in New York in this 2014 file photo. (Bebeto Matthews/Associated Press)

Hecht said she understands the public interest in the stories of celebrities who've killed themselves, but worries about the effect on those who are already feeling vulnerable.

"Part of it is the myth that all suicide is the result of depression — a lot of it is impulse," she said.

It's the reporting of the details that she believes is problematic, largely because they tend to end up in prominent places, including in the headlines or in the banner at the bottom of a TV screen.

"If you just say someone has died in the headline, and put the fact of suicide and a few other details — and not more — in the body of the text, then not everyone is bombarded with the fact of the suicide," Hecht said.

Anthony Bourdain is shown in Toronto in this 2016 file photo. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

According to a World Health Organization study used to guide CBC's own reporting on suicides, it recommends avoiding a detailed description of the method used in a suicide or suicide attempt. The study also found media coverage has a greater impact on the method of suicide used than the frequency of suicide attempts.

It's worth noting that Spade and Bourdain are believed to have died in the same way.

Desire vs. need to know

According to Hecht, repetition of these details can seem benign to some and deeply affect others.

"If you knew that someone you cared about could be hurt by certain words, it becomes sort of a no-brainer you would not saturate them with that," she said. "And so I think that if we extend our empathy a little wider, we get a little braver about what should be said and what seems like a reasonable step to take."

And personal details about family or financial stresses that may have been in play in the person's life may not have a place in the coverage at all, she said, suggesting that the public's desire to know doesn't equate with needing to know.

But it also raises some other questions for journalists.

Does minimizing the story sustain the impression that suicide is a taboo topic? "We don't want to stigmatize it, but we do want to save lives," answers Hecht.

And does providing only minimal detail end up diminishing the coverage of stories, such as the vast numbers of people who've taken their own lives in some First Nations communities?

"We are going to have to be constantly discussing public health versus free speech, and I think the best news sources can distinguish themselves from everybody else by following some best practices," Hecht says.

Also this week on The Investigators with Diana Swain: Legendary investigative journalist Seymour Hersh on covering Donald Trump, and American reporter Julio Ricardo Varela on why Puerto Rico's death toll from Hurricane Maria hasn't generated big headlines.

Where to get help:

Canada Suicide Prevention Service

In French: Association québécoise de prévention du suicide: 1-866-APPELLE (1-866-277-3553)

Kids Help Phone:

  • Toll-free: 1-800-668-6868.
  • Chat:
  • App: Always There by Kids Help Phone.

Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention: Find a 24-hour crisis centre.

If you're worried someone you know may be at risk of suicide, you should talk to them about it, says the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention. Here are some warning signs: 

  • Suicidal thoughts.
  • Substance abuse.
  • Purposelessness.
  • Anxiety.
  • Feeling trapped.
  • Hopelessness and helplessness.
  • Withdrawal.
  • Anger.
  • Recklessness.
  • Mood changes.

About the Author

Multi-award-winning journalist Diana Swain is the senior investigative correspondent for CBC News and host of The Investigators on CBC News Network.