Irresponsible media reporting of suicides encourages copycats and may even trigger an epidemic, warn experts from the University of Hong Kong's Centre for Suicide Research and Prevention.
It also caused additional hurt and put pressure on victims' families, a seminar heard yesterday.
One woman was invited to give a first-hand account of the threat. Jeannie Wu Chun-yu said sensational reports on pop star Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing's suicide had brought out more negative emotions in her ex-husband, who was battling depression at the time. He ultimately committed suicide.
"When he read about [Cheung's] suicide, he said that seemed like a pretty good way to die," she said.
Her husband's first attempt at suicide, and his death, were picked up by Chinese media, and an online report used animation and photos taken from social media sites, and contained factual errors.
"The toughest was when [the video news clip] came out … it was explicit. They had photos of his body … there was also a lot of sensationalising, parts of which were made up," said Wu.
"I did media studies at university and some of my family were involved in the media industry, so we could handle it better than other people.
"But after the videos came out, I had relatives and friends calling me, crying their eyes out, and I had to try to calm them down.
"So I experienced first-hand the direct correlation between media reporting and suicides as well as the effect on [victims'] families."
At the seminar on suicide rates and their correlation with media reporting of suicides, professor and director of the centre Paul Yip Siu-fai said media reports especially affected young people.
Last year, the suicide rate increased from 10.6 to 11.8 per 100,000 people, according to a report issued by the centre. About 840 people succeeded in taking their own lives, compared to 750 in 2011.
The centre yesterday released a guideline for media, developed with the Hong Kong Press Council, on how to report suicide cases ethically and avoid becoming a catalyst for copycat suicides.
Joseph Chan Man, chairman of the Hong Kong Press Council, said the internet had become a bigger platform for gathering more personal information on victims, and opened up other ways of distributing news in the form of animation, videos and more.
"These new media are more intrusive," he said. "There needs to be a balance between press freedom and the right to report, and the duty and social obligation to respect life."