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How to cover mental health - and abide by the moral imperative

Posted Oct 22 2008 4:32pm

To paraphrase Bob Woodward, journalists – and their readers – should seek the truth or, more realistically, the “most obtainable version” of it.

But in its coverage of crime that involves people with mental illness, the media has consistently produced information that is incomplete, inconsistent and, as a result, untruthful to the point of outrageousness.

In such matters, the media needs to grasp the complexity of mental illness – which would include developing an understanding of the background, symptoms and effects of schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and other illnesses – before going to print or doing a broadcast.

But the media has too often chosen the low-road and typically gone for the fear-mongering, consumer-driven components of a story rather than promoting a profound understanding that – if they tried – could attract the same amount of readers they normally get, as well as perform a public service.

The media also have failed to provide a consistent balance in the form of an alternative viewpoint that could help explain – and lend clarity to – such issues. Providing balance in crime news could help shape a new understanding of mental illness and, perhaps, help people better understand why certain crimes are committed.

Perhaps the biggest culprit is the tabloid media, which has developed its own vocabulary of terms to paint people with mental illness as less than desirable. These news outlets routinely dehumanize people by labeling them with derogatory terms such as “wacko” or “loon” – even if the story has a remote connection, or even lacks any association, with mental illness.

Language is, perhaps, the media’s sharpest weapon, and it’s allowed The New York Post, The New York Daily News and many papers like it to be seduced by the need to condense, shock, outrage and, ultimately, demean those with mental illness. A search of newspaper headlines through the Lexis-Nexis online research site, for example, revealed that, since March 1995, the word “wacko” has appeared in articles published by The Daily News and The Post more than 500 times (The same term was used in The New York Times, which has shown more sensitivity toward mental health issues, 238 times, but not one appeared in a headline). The term was sometimes used to describe some cases where mental illness was not necessarily an issue – but, because of the headline, it’s either unfairly implied or alleged that mental illness was connected to crime, or it was even the direct cause of it.

One such Daily News headline on April 20, 2004 read thusly: WEB HATE SITES LURING SICKOS, WACKOS, WEIRDOS. Toward that end, Michael Jackson is always an easy target, such as this example from the Daily News on April 1, 2004: JACKO GOES MUM BUT STAYS WACKO. On March 14, 2004, this headline appeared in The New York Post: STANDOFF; WACKO HOLDS GRANNY HOSTAGE.

None of these stories, however, produced any evidence that the people described as “wacko” were ever diagnosed with a mental illness. Has Michael Jackson ever even visited a psychiatrist?

Sometimes, these editorial headline decisions are made BEFORE the facts of a particular case come to light. The Feb. 7, 2007 issue of Columbia Journalism Review, for instance, cited the reporting of the bizarre adventures of Lisa Nowak as an example, noting the former astronaut “soared” across newspaper front pages earlier this year not for her recent shuttle mission to the international space station, but for the details surrounding her arrest and subsequent charges for attempted murder and kidnapping.

As CJR noted, Nowak had recently separated from her husband of 19 years, with whom she had three children. She graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy and worked at NASA for more than 20 years. Many news reports, however, focused not on her accomplished background or her recent marital troubles, but on the sensationalistic case evidence produced by police: Nowak allegedly wore adult diapers so she wouldn’t have to stop during her 900-mile road trip to confront A ir Force Capt. Colleen Shipman, whom Nowak allegedly considered a rival for the affections of another astronaut, William A. Oefelein, according to CJR.

Twenty-four hours after the story broke, it was still unclear whether Nowak suffered from any illnesses related to mental health. Still, the news media jumped on this story and immediately applied derogatory mental health terms to describe the disgraced astronaut and her adventures – none more so than The New York Daily News, which displayed a front page, bold-type, black-and-white headline that said: “Dark Side of the Loon.” To this day, it’s still unclear whether Nowak suffers from any type of mental illness, but it didn’t matter: The Daily News had effectively dehumanized her before she even had a diagnosis from a psychiatrist.

In some ways, television news – particularly Fox News – has adopted the same kind of shock-and-awe philosophy as The Post and The Daily News. The 24-hour news outlets have helped promote that approach by employing commentators who offer strongly worded diatribes that strike a nerve with a public that’s weary of random, unexplained kidnappings and killings in today’s society.

Bill O’Reilly, host of “ The O’Reilly Factor,” has, perhaps, taken this approach a step further than most commentators, making it his regular practice to use the word “loon” to describe anyone who is undesirable or, more accurately, anyone who disagrees with him. In the process, he’s reinforced his obvious bias against people with mental illness more often than he promotes his line of clothing. Just three months ago, a quick search of "Bill O'Reilly" and "loon" on You Tube yielded no more than 10 video-clip entries. Now the list is endless - page after page shows O'Reilly equating "loons" with pedophiles and people who exhibit other forms of inappropriate behavior – as well as the “far left” peace advocates who protest against the Iraq war. Other talk-show hosts who imitate him have caught on, too, and they've made continuous references to "left-wing loons" and other groups.

Here is an example of one such O’Reilly diatribe, taken from his nationally syndicated newspaper column published on Nov. 12, 2007 and entitled “ Never mind the far-left loons, the war on terrorism is real. ” Notice how “lunacy,” in O’Reilly’s mind, essentially boils down to stupidity:

“So now the far-left loons in the media are saying there really isn’t an organized terror threat in the world and this whole war on terror deal is a hype job,” he wrote. “That must come as great comfort to the thousands of families who lost loved ones on 9/11. They must really appreciate the St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorializing: ‘After nearly six years of hearing the Bush administration make assertions about the war on terrorism that turn out – to put it kindly – overblown.’ I’m just wondering how ‘overblown’ the terror war is for the five thousand individuals injured when al-Qaida blew up two U.S. embassies in Africa, not to mention the 257 human beings who were murdered in that attack. But it might be hard to comprehend ‘overblown’ when you’re dead.

“The nutty professor Paul Krugman, who teaches at Princeton and writes op-ed lunacy for The New York Times, is also on the diminish-terror bandwagon. This is from his desk: ‘There isn’t any such thing as Islamofascism – it’s not an ideology; it’s a figment of the neocon imagination.’ That’s like saying there is no such thing as stupidity, right, professor?”

The gotcha headlines, some media have argued, attract people who otherwise wouldn’t give a damn about what’s going on in the world around them. In a Dec. 20, 2001 article published by the Asia News Network, Fox News chairman Roger Ailes defended his network’s overall approach to news and how it deals with crime and terrorism stories by saying: “Look, we understand the enemy... They want to murder us. We don't sit around and get all gooey and wonder if these people have been misunderstood in their childhood. If they're going to try to kill us, that's bad.”

But all that is beside the point. To quote Albert Brooks in the movie “ Broadcast News,” they’re burying the lead, and not reporting on the root cause of the murder or what can be done to prevent such horrific acts from happening again.

In a June 16, 1995 New York Times article, reporter Lisa Foderaro noted: “Language is such a sensitive area in the mental health field because it can reflect an individual's very notion of what mental illness is – whether a serious disease or merely a psychiatric label put on an emotional crisis or an altered state of consciousness – and because it can be belittling or empowering.” She then quoted Nora Weinerth of the National Stigma Clearinghouse in New York, who said: “When language is used to devalue, it shapes attitudes that, in turn, become public policy.”

Having balanced coverage would perhaps counteract against the stereotypes. In criminal matters, reporters could give mental illness awareness efforts the same kind of respect they give to police departments who want to inform a public about a suspect who’s on the loose. If a reporter discovers that a suspect is schizophrenic, or obsessive compulsive, or bipolar, maybe he or she should call up psychiatrists or the National Alliance on Mentally Illness to learn more about the illness, and then report on it. Psychiatrists, psychologists or advocates could be on the same “call list” – right alongside the police – when a murder takes place and the evidence is clear that the suspect has a mentally illness.

The New York Times is, perhaps, one of the few who “get it” and explore what happens in criminal cases involving people with mental illness as well as revealing the so-called “dark side” of the suspect. It was, in fact, one of the first publications to explore what happened to Andrew Goldstein before he pushed Kendra Webdale to her death on a subway track in New York City. The man was diagnosed with schizophrenia, and he had failed numerous times to get treatment before he killed the 32-year-old woman eight years ago.

In a May 23, 1999 New York Times Magazine article, the newspaper explained how there were numerous attempts to get Goldstein help before he committed murder. But the system failed him like it failed many others. According to the Times: “ They knew he was dangerous. In the two years before Kendra Webdale was instantly killed on the tracks, Andrew Goldstein attacked at least 13 other people. The hospital staff members who kept treating and discharging Goldstein knew that he repeatedly attacked strangers in public places. They knew because he had attacked them -- two psychiatrists, a nurse, a social worker and a therapy aide in two years' time. Over and over, his hospital charts carried warnings.”

The Times continued: “ They knew. Long before this subway push … the state of the nation's shattered mental-health system all but assured such calamities. Yet for each hospitalization – there were 13 in 1997 and 1998 alone – Goldstein was given medication, then discharged, often after just a few days, to live on his own in a basement apartment. And now the consequences were front-page news: ‘Horror on the Tracks,’ read the tabloid headlines, ‘The Face of a Madman.’

Editor's note: This blog entry was originally submitted as an assignment for Richard Wald's Critical Issues class at Columbia University.

By Bruce Springsteen

Lights out tonight
trouble in the heartland
Got a head-on collision
smashin' in my guts, man
I'm caught in a cross fire
that I don't understand
But there's one thing I know for sure girl
I don't give a damn
For the same old played out scenes
I don't give a damn
For just the in betweens
Honey, I want the heart, I want the soul
I want control right now
talk about a dream
Try to make it real
you wake up in the night
With a fear so real
Spend your life waiting
for a moment that just don't come
Well, don't waste your time waiting

Badlands, you gotta live it everyday
Let the broken hearts stand
As the price you've gotta pay
We'll keep pushin' till it's understood
and these badlands start treating us good

Workin' in the fields
till you get your back burned
Workin' 'neath the wheel
till you get your facts learned
Baby I got my facts
learned real good right now
You better get it straight darling
Poor man wanna be rich,
rich man wanna be king
And a king ain't satisfied
till he rules everything
I wanna go out tonight,
I wanna find out what I got
Well I believe in the love that you gave me

I believe in the love that you gave me
I believe in the faith that could save me
I believe in the hope
and I pray that some day
It may raise me above these


mmmmmmmm, mmmmm, mmmmmm

For the ones who had a notion,
a notion deep inside
That it ain't no sin
to be glad you're alive
I wanna find one face
that ain't looking through me
I wanna find one place,
I wanna spit in the face of these badlands


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