After Newtown missteps, journalists get guidelines

Protip: Don’t diagnose based on speculation.

by Jessica Wright               

Attention journalists: If you’ve been calling people “nuts” or “deranged” in your stories, the Associated Press is recommending that it’s time you stopped.

This guideline — along with the common-sense assertion that writers shouldn’t diagnose individuals with a mental illness based entirely on speculation — is part of a new recommendation added to the AP stylebook. The change was announced March 7.

“It is the right time to address how journalists handle questions of mental illness in coverage,” says AP senior vice president Kathleen Carroll. And what makes the time right is probably the journalism mess that arose in the wake of the tragic Newtown school shootings last December. Reporters on the scene released the wrong name for the suspect and interviewed traumatized children. In the days that followed, the media and the general public both rushed to ‘diagnose’ the accused perpetrator, Adam Lanza, without any medical confirmation of a specific diagnosis.

Behavior that seems impossible to comprehend makes us want to distance ourselves from those who do it, and there is no better way to create that distance than by using a label that says, “That’s not me.” This label seemingly protects one group of people from the horror of the event, but it also drags those who share the label straight into the fray. In this case, autistic people* found themselves in the absurd position of having to defend the fact that they are no more likely to commit mass murder than anyone else.

The new AP guidelines specifically address the issue, recommending that journalists “do not assume that mental illness is a factor in a violent crime,” and that “studies have shown that the vast majority of people with mental illness are not violent, and experts say most people who are violent do not suffer from mental illness.”

In summary, even though someone can be labeled as both A and B, that doesn’t necessarily mean that A ever leads to B. And a lot of people who are B aren’t A. Seems quite logical when we’re using only letters. But try to read an article mentioning that someone has a mental illness or disorder and that they did something extraordinary (good or bad) and not link the two.

And these links can have very real consequences for public perception of mental illness. People are almost twice as likely to say that they don’t want to live or work near a person with mental illness if they read an article about a person with mental illness involved in a mass shooting, according to a study published March 20 in the American Journal of Psychiatry. Interestingly, this tendency is the same even if the article avoids any mention of mental illness. This may be because this link between violence and mental illness is deeply engrained in our mindset, showing just how hard we all need to work to reverse it.

To help combat this, the AP guidelines go back to basics, doling out journalistic practice recommendations to journalists when it comes to writing about mental health. Specifically, they reference having a “reliable” source for someone’s mental health status. Family members, mental health professionals, medical authorities, law enforcement officials, and court records are appropriate sources, according to the guidelines. Off-the-record sources, hearsay, and speculation are not.

The reason for this obvious recommendation may be that armchair diagnosis has become so incredibly common in our daily lives. I’ve seen friends return from admittedly awkward dates, having immediately diagnosed their failed suitor with autism, or another convenient diagnosis. As a writer who covers autism, I am also constantly floored by how many people diagnose others with Asperger syndrome — which is about to be rolled into a new, broader “autism” category — because they “hate crowds,” or “prefer to be alone.”. None of these things, incidentally, would in themselves be anything close to a diagnosis of autism, which is a developmental disorder primarily related to social communication deficits, not antisocial inclinations.

How to combat this tendency to snap diagnose isn’t easy, but I think that removing habitual speculation from mass media (if an AP guideline could do that) is a good start. In fact, the real solution might lie in some of the less obvious recommendations. For one, the AP urges journalists to avoid descriptions such as “suffer from,” or “is a victim of,” which they say “connotes pity.” What these terms also do is stigmatize mental illness, perpetuating the notion of the “other” attached to those with a diagnosis that the reader may not share.

Another powerful set of recommendations encourages writers to be specific when discussing mental illness. The guidelines suggest mentioning the actual diagnosis, providing clinically established examples of symptoms, and “wherever possible, rely(ing) on people with mental illness to talk about their own diagnoses.”

Such suggestions have the potential not only to avoid harm but also to do good. Giving mental illness a voice can show that it is varied and nuanced, that it affects different people in different ways at different times, and that it very rarely looks like a Hollywoodized version of itself… or the version so many people think they know at a first glance.

*Note that the AP included autism as a ‘mental illness’ although the general medical consensus is that it is a ‘developmental disorder.’ They indicate this fact in the release as well.

[Jessica Wright has a Ph.D. in biological sciences from Stanford University and did postdoctoral research at Rockefeller University in parasitology. She is a research editor for the autism research news website SFARI.org; opinions here are her own. You can find her on Twitter at Jessrw_NYC.]

Image via Wikimedia Commons, in public domain.