Media coverage of Robin Williams' suicide in the United States: A contributor to contagion?

PLoS One. 2019 May 9;14(5):e0216543. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0216543. eCollection 2019.


Evidence suggests that suicide rates can increase following the suicide of a prominent celebrity or peer, sometimes known as 'suicide contagion'. The risk of contagion is especially high when media coverage is detailed and sensational. A recent study reported a 10% increase in U.S. suicides in the months following the suicide of comedian Robin Williams, who died in August 2014. The authors tentatively linked this increase to sensational media coverage; however, no content analysis of U.S. media was performed. As such, the aim of the present study is to formally examine the tone and content of U.S. newspaper coverage of Williams' suicide. The primary objective is to assess adherence to suicide reporting guidelines in U.S. newspapers after his suicide. The secondary objective is to identify common emerging themes discussed in these articles. The tertiary objective is to compare patterns of results in the U.S media with those in the Canadian media. Articles about Williams' suicide were collected from 10 U.S. newspapers in the 30-day period following his death using systematic retrieval software, which were then examined for adherence to suicide reporting recommendations. An inductive thematic analysis was also undertaken. A total of 63 articles were included in the study. We found that 100% of articles did not call it a 'successful' suicide, 96.8% did not use pejorative phrases and 71% did not say 'commit' suicide. However, only 11% included information about help-seeking, 27% tended to romanticize his suicide and 46% went into detail about the method. The most prominent emerging theme was Williams' struggles with mental illness and addiction. These findings suggest that U.S. newspapers moderately adhered to best practice recommendations when reporting Williams' suicide. Key recommendations were underapplied, which may have contributed to suicide contagion. New interventions targeting U.S. journalists and media may be needed to improve suicide reporting.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Communication
  • Famous Persons*
  • Guideline Adherence
  • Humans
  • Mass Media / statistics & numerical data*
  • Newspapers as Topic / statistics & numerical data*
  • Suicide / statistics & numerical data*
  • United States

Grant support

The study was funded by the Mental Health Commission of Canada, which is funded by Health Canada. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decisions to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.