IT is a discomfiting question for the media, accustomed to being on the other side of the microphone or note pad. Has the intense news coverage of child suicides in Hongkong contributed to some ''copy-cat'' cases? In other words, has the media helped perpetuate the very crisis it has reported. Experts in social work psychology and education maintain that it may well have. Commonly cited causes of Hongkong's child suicides - pressures at home and school - have not dramatically worsened, some say, yet Hongkong's child suicide rate has. Widespread media coverage of child suicides is seen as a new variable in the equation. There's never been a comprehensive study of the connection between media and suicides in Hongkong. However, the bulk of research into suicide patterns in other nations has shown a link can exist. Experts agree there is usually not a single reason people take their own lives and it is a very difficult task to establish a simple cause and effect. But they fear that media coverage of suicides may serve as the trigger that sets off the impulse in already vulnerable people. Few, if anyone, support government curbs on the coverage of suicides in Hongkong. As 1997 looms ever closer, such a precedent is considered a dangerous incursion into the waters of free expression. But there is widespread agreement that it would be beneficial for Hongkong's media and suicide-prevention experts to sit down and talk about what local newspapers, radio and television can do to alleviate the child suicide epidemic. ''Let's have a rational discussion and see if something can be worked out,'' said Ms Emily Lau Wai-hing, a member of Legislative Council and former journalist. ''I don't think we've yet had an opportunity to really air this issue.'' A strong advocate of press freedom, Ms Lau added: ''Maybe there is a case for the media to handle it (the suicide problem) very judiciously and carefully.'' Experts fear that children may be particularly susceptible to the power of suggestion when it comes to suicide. Hongkong was shocked earlier this week when an eight-year-old girl jumped five storeys after leaving her parents a suicide note. Her father said the girl had expressed the fear that she would be neglected following the birth of a baby sister. But Ms So Yan-lap, chairman of the Advisory Committee on School Guidance and Support Services and principal of Pooi To Middle School in Kowloon City, wonders whether widespread publicity of suicides may have played a role in the young girl's suicide attempt, even though it is unlikely she had started reading newspapers. ''Sibling rivalry and fear of losing love is nothing new,'' said Ms So. ''But why should an eight-year-old have this idea? That is my immediate question. I couldn't help coming to the conclusion that she must have heard about it - must have heard about it from other people talking or through radio or TV.'' Some experts who want Hongkong's media to re-examine its method of reporting suicides cite other countries that are more restrained in their coverage. ''The bottom line is it's not news - it doesn't affect anybody else except the immediate family,'' said Mr Fred Brown, associate editor of the Denver Post who sits on the ethics committee of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) in the United States. He said a concern about suicide coverage spurring more suicides also ''enters into the discussions that are held as to how you cover these things.'' If Denver were faced with a rash of student suicides, the Denver Post would probably cover the general problem periodically while avoiding names of victims or descriptions of how the suicides were carried out. ''The individual death is not news. The trend is the news,'' Mr Brown said. He cited a 1991 SPJ survey of 32 US newspaper editors and six broadcast news directors who generally agreed suicides should be covered only if the deceased is a public figure or the suicide was committed in a public way. This tough line against covering suicides in the US may be easy to take because the US media is so confident of the guarantees of freedom of expression they enjoy. In fact, Mr Brown said, there was a growing feeling among US news executives - faced with a sometimes hostile American public which felt the press often goes too far - that respecting privacy was important. Like the United States, Canada's press voluntarily restricts its coverage of suicides. In 1971, the Toronto Transit Commission and the city's press began discussions about a wave of subway suicides. As a result, editors there agreed generally to quit reporting when people jumped in front of subway trains. Meanwhile, the Chief Coroner of Ontario agreed to stop conducting public inquests that were open to the press on most subway suicides. As the number of articles on suicides in the Toronto Star declined, so did subway suicides. A decade later, Dr. S.K. Littmann of the University of Toronto's Clarke Institute of Psychiatry, studied that case and concluded that the press can play the role of the ''controller of an epidemic.'' The Toronto suicide wave and media coverage together created an ''upward spiral'' of deaths, said Professor Christopher Bagley of the University of Calgary who is a visiting reader in applied social studies at the City Polytechnic of Hongkong. ''Somebodyhas to break the spiral.'' Mr Fred Kuntz, deputy city editor of the Toronto Star, said his newspaper now generally did not report a suicide unless it became a public event, the victim was a celebrity or it was a murder-suicide. If there was a wave of youth suicides in Toronto, Mr Kuntz said, he might assign a feature writer to the story to try to put the problem in context. ''But I wouldn't send a police reporter there (to the suicide scene) with a camera and say: 'Be back in two hours', '' Mr Kuntz said. He said the two other newspapers in Toronto appeared to follow similar policies. ''It's not a formal agreement (but) the dictates of taste and journalistic standards are fairly consistent . . . I think this is just a widespread understanding.'' Hongkong's media, looking ahead to the impending transition to Chinese rule, are far less confident and perhaps more reticent to practise self-censorship when it comes to suicides. Ms Daisy Li Yuet-wah, chairman of the Hongkong Journalists' Association, said some reporters worried that if newspapers began to restrict their coverage of suicides ''we open up a precedent justifying self-censorship in political news and other types of news.'' However, Ms Li draws a distinction between ''self-censorship'' and ''self-restraint.'' She opposes a blanket ban on suicide reporting, but believes there is room for Hongkong's press to re-evaluate its coverage. ''To be a responsible press, there's always a degree of self-restraint,'' she said. Mr C.C. Tung, chief editor of Ming Pao Daily Newspapers agrees .''You can't say it's not news. It's news, of course. If we do it correctly this kind of news can have a good influence on the community,'' he said. ''If you do it badly, then of course it will have a bad influence.''