Randy Beam receives RRF award to study news coverage of suicide

randy_beam2Professor Randy Beam, in collaboration with School of Social Work Assistant Professor Jennifer Stuber (whose previous research has focused on mental health issues), has been awarded $34,985 from the Royalty Research Fund to study news coverage of suicide.

“We hope to use what we find to design education programs to improve the quality of coverage of suicide, which is the tenth-leading cause of death in the United States,” Beam said. “Most people probably don’t realize that suicide leads to about twice as many deaths as motor vehicle accidents in Washington State each year.”

The funding will support the beginning phase of the project, which includes two content analyses focusing on how the news media frame suicide. The first will be a computer-aided analysis of 2,500 to 3,500 news stories published between 1991 and 2012; and the second will be based on human coding of about 1,000 news stories to test hypotheses about links between the ways journalists frame stories and organizational size, suicide prevalence rates in the environment, and recent national recommendations on reporting about suicide.

“One reason it’s important to look at media coverage is because of concerns about contagion effects,” Beam said. “Contagion basically means copy-catting. Research has found that careless news coverage has been linked to attempts by vulnerable individuals to take their own lives.”

Subsequent phases of the project include a survey of journalists about coverage practices, experiments to identify frames most likely to be associated with potential contagion effects, and an education program intended to teach journalists how to report about suicide more thoroughly.

“Our content analyses are intended to better understand exactly how journalists are telling stories about suicide and to estimate how much careless or uninformed coverage exists,” Beam said. “Informally, we’ve noticed a lot of it.”