This Is AuburnElectronic Theses and Dissertations

Effects of repeated exposure to graphic suicide news articles on explicit and implicit measures of suicide risk




Williams, Caitlin

Type of Degree

PhD Dissertation




Existing observational research suggests that following media portrayal of a suicide, there is an increase in imitative suicidal behaviors (e.g., Gould, 2001; Pirkis & Blood, 2001; Stack, 2005). Despite a plethora of observational research, to date, only two experimental studies have evaluated the effects of exposure to suicide news articles (i.e., Anestis et al., 2015; Williams & Witte, 2017). Both of these experimental studies reported findings inconsistent with observational research, finding no evidence of an imitative effect. However, there were a number of limitations with the previous experimental designs. As such, our goal in the current study was to improve upon existing experimental research in order to develop a more concrete understanding of imitative suicidal behaviors following exposure to suicide news articles. In the current study, we evaluated the effects of exposure to a series of suicide news articles on a variety of outcome variables including explicit measures of suicide risk (i.e., affect, suicidal ideation, depressive symptoms, attitudes toward suicide) and a measure of implicit associations with suicide (i.e., Death/Suicide Implicit Association Task). We also evaluated whether individual vulnerabilities (i.e., lifetime history of suicidal ideation/attempt) moderated these relationships. Data were collected from 420 participants. Of all outcome variables, only changes in affect were affected by exposure to suicide news articles (i.e., positive affect decreased for the suicide condition and negative affect decreased for those in the control condition). We also did not find any moderation effect of individual vulnerabilities, such as lifetime suicidal ideation and behavior. Overall, our study addresses many of the limitations of previous experimental studies and provides important information about the immediate impact of exposure to suicide news articles on a variety of outcome variables known to be associated with increased risk for suicidal behavior. However, the discrepancy between findings of experimental and observational studies remains. Future research should aim to address this gap and explore additional explanations for the differences between experimental and observational designs.