Few topics are as misunderstood by the media as mental health. Despite advances in treatment paradigms, reporters too often fall back on dated stereotypes, distort the nature of illnesses and recovery and rely on shaky sources. Those are some of the reasons behind the WHYY Behavioral Health Journalism Workshop Series.
“There is no such thing as a new story. What there are, and always will be, are the great next stories.”
The series, launched in 2016 with support from the Scattergood Foundation, convenes mental health experts and journalists twice a year at the headquarters of WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station. Among the speakers at the most recent workshop, called “New Frontiers in Mental Health and Addiction Reporting,” were Dr. Arthur Evans, head of the American Psychological Association; New Yorker staff writer Rachel Aviv; New York Times reporter Pam Belluck; and ProPublica senior reporter Charles Ornstein.
Here are five tips that emerged at the workshop for navigating the complex terrain of mental health reporting:
1. Watch your language — and your tropes.
Dr. Monica Calkins, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine, says media coverage of mental health has not improved markedly in recent decades. Research shows that mental health stories are much more likely to focus on danger and criminality than on recovery and rehabilitation. Few discuss treatment, insurance coverage and the neurological basis of disease. Calkins advises reporters to look out for distortions and inaccuracies in their work: Are you misrepresenting the prevalence and demographics of a disease with your choice of character? Are you accurately describing the actual symptoms of an illness and their frequency? Are you misrepresenting unrelated features, such as violence and creativity, as associated with a disease? Avoid using words like “schizophrenic” and “bipolar” as poetic stand-ins for “chaotic” or “mercurial” — that adds to misunderstanding and stigma around illnesses.
2. Report on solutions, not just problems.
Like a lot of serious journalism, reporting on mental health and addiction tends to focus on “doom and gloom.” Stories that uncover abuse at psychiatric institutions or depict the toll of the opioid epidemic are critical. But Dr. Arthur Evans, who heads the American Psychological Association, cautions against leaving readers with the impression that problems are intractable, especially when many aren’t getting the care they need. He pointed to a seminal 1987 study that tracked nearly 300 patients with severe mental illness released from Vermont State Hospital for 32 years. Half to two-thirds improved considerably or recovered fully. Evans also noted that recovery rates for substance abuse are similar to those for other chronic conditions and that research shows more time in treatment leads to better outcomes. “These are issues that can be effectively addressed,” he said.
3. Look for new angles on seemingly obvious subjects.
Our understanding of mental health is constantly evolving. Belluck, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her role in The Times’ Ebola coverage, assumed there wasn’t much new to say about postpartum depression. She learned otherwise while investigating the story of a woman who jumped out of a building with her 10-month-old son strapped to her chest. New research, Belluck discovered, showed that maternal mental illness often emerged later than previously thought and encompassed psychiatric symptoms beyond depression. Psychosis isn’t a new phenomenon, but Rachel Aviv conveyed the internal experience in a fresh way in her stories in Harper’s and The New Yorker. “There is no such thing as a new story. What there are, and always will be, are the great next stories,” says Stephen Fried, a journalist and author who has won awards for his mental health coverage and helps organize the series.
4. Dig into data.
Reporters should take advantage of a wealth of data sources that can provide story ideas or buttress mental health reporting. Ornstein, who covers health care at ProPublica and won a Pulitzer for his coverage of a troubled Los Angeles hospital for the Los Angeles Times, shares many of them here. For example, HospitalInspections.org allows you to search for hospital inspection reports in every state. (It only includes substantiated complaints.) Ornstein and his colleagues used ProPublica’s Prescriber Checkup to underpin dozens of stories about problematic prescribing practices. ProPublica’s Dollars for Docs database tracks corporate payments to U.S. doctors. Ornstein suggests going deep with one data set that interests you, rather than spreading yourself thin. “Don’t be intimidated” by data, Ornstein advises — there are experts willing to help. He suggests looking beyond publicly available information and trying to “free new data” by filing public records requests, then sharing it as a public resource.
5. Talk to the right sources.
A few months ago, New York Times science reporter Benedict Carey wrote an article headlined, “Are Mass Murderers Insane? Usually Not, Researchers Say.” The reporter’s sources included a forensic psychiatrist who maintained an independent database of mass killers and a forensic psychologist and consultant to the FBI. Dr. Jeffrey Lieberman, who chairs Columbia University’s Psychiatry Department, said the article was shaky because neither source had done robust scientific research about the question at hand.
When choosing sources, Lieberman and other workshop speakers advised, reporters should find someone with credentials and experience in the specific area of scholarly work the article explores. Academic institutions, professional associations and state recovery organizations can serve as filters for identifying experts. Clinical psychologists who aren’t researchers should only be asked to comment on their own anecdotal experience. Groups like Faces & Voices of Recovery can refer sources with lived experiences.