In the third part of his autobiography (1814) Johann Wolfgang von Goethe reflects on the incident that some individuals killed themselves as a response to his very popular epistolary novel The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774). The novel does not just thematise the revolt of a bourgeois subject against the gentry and the clergy but is also the story of the unsuccessful love between Werther and Lotte, which culminates in Werther’s suicide. This canonical example from literary history points towards a central aspect in the area of popular narratives depicting suicidality—namely, that certain media reports may trigger further suicides, so-called copycat effects. In contemporary times, this phenomenon has gained immense significance owing to the emergence of global mass media.
In 1974 US sociologist David Phillips first found empirical evidence for an increase of suicides following media reports of suicide. He referred to this phenomenon as the Werther effect. Certain suicide-related media reports in newspapers seem to function as triggers for suicides by individuals who already find themselves in a state of severe and unbearable psychosocial crises. However, most recently, the Media & Suicide Study Team in Vienna has found evidence that not all depictions of suicide in the print media trigger such copycat effects; in contrast, certain portrayals of suicidality in the news (e.g., stories on individuals who were in suicidal crises but adopted coping mechanisms other than suicidal behaviour) may even prevent suicides, as indicated by decreasing suicide rates after the publication of such print-media reports. This phenomenon was conceptualized as the Papageno effect, based on the coping of Papageno’s suicidal crisis in Mozart’s “The Magic Flute”.
Creating the Image of Suicide As an Easy Way
An example of media reporting that triggered considerable copycat behaviour in Austria was the 1990 report on the death of Peter Gürtler. To get a deeper insight into the textual structure and content that may have contributed to this harmful effect, we conducted a textual analysis of specific rhetorical devices and textual structures used in newspaper articles for the portrayal of this suicide. The research was funded by the Austrian Academy of Sciences.
The reports in the yellow press used several rhetorical figures of speech that made suicide seem like the only solution to his problems: “Peter Gürtler grabbed a gun, as he was suffering from acute depression.” Such an expression projects the act of suicide as easy to accomplish and thus could have a suggestive effect on people who are in a state of psychosocial crisis and looking for a way to solve their problems. Furthermore, the example cited illustrates intrinsic suggestive power in its clausal construction. The sentence offers a single reason for his suicide, depression, and links this to the act itself through a linguistic pattern. Consequently, this sentence construction presents suicide as the logical outcome of depression.