How much difference can Time to Change make to how print journalists report mental illness?

19 Mar

Newspapers rolled up

On Monday 18th March, Time to Change held the latest in its series of media education events. This one focussed on print journalists, both tabloid and broadsheet. How much difference can this make to the quality of press reporting where there is a mental health aspect? Take a look at the links below – including the live blog and tweets under the hashtag #TTCmeet media – to see what you think.

At the start of the evening, a film was shown with some valuable advice about reporting mental illness. It’s well worth watching the short (7 mins) film for more fascinating insights put in a straighforward manner. These included the following advice on reporting breaking news stories:

  1. Stick to the facts and don’t speculate that mental health is a factor unless you know it to be 100% true
  2. Interview someone with a mental health problem, to give your audience a realistic view of what it’s like to live with one
  3. Put as much of the subject’s voice in the piece as possible. Use quotes. Let them them tell the story.
  4. Include contextualising facts, since homicides by people with mental health problems are incredibly rare
  5. Seek comment and context by a mental health charity like Mind or Rethink Mental Illness, or a professional body like the Royal College of Psychiatrists
  6. Avoid stereotypes, clichés & sensationalism
  7. Mind your language: misusing mental health diagnoses in the media can be offensive, and can cause misunderstanding
Good advice which, if followed by print journalists, would make stories with a mental health aspect far more relateable to their readers – a quarter of whom, after all, experience mental health problems in any one year – as well as less sensationalist and alarmist. However, as Ian Mayes, Guardian associate editor and former readers’ editor, said in 2008:
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“We stand in relation to some aspects of mental health – particularly in the way we refer to mental illness, in the language that we use and misuse – roughly where we stood in relation to race 20 or 30 years ago. The least we can do is to accept that language used about mental illness is important and reflect this in the practice of our trade.”
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The current state of reporting means there are opportunities available for journalists. What do I mean?
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  • The fact there are so many misconceptions around mental illness means there’s an abundance of great stories waiting to be told.
  • There’s a revolution happening in mental health, which gives the best journalists the chance to make their names in an evolving subject.
The best journalists will break out of the old cliches and start reporting mental health in the new way. Hopefully some of the journalists present at the Time to Change event will be inspired to take on board at least some of the messages receive during the evening and put them into practice in their writing. Of course, the worst journalists will continue reporting mental illness in the same tired old way, using the three bog-standard storylines, namely:
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  1. When a heinous crime is committed, journalists speculate that the perpetrator must have a mental illness. This is sloppy journalism of course, based around an incorrect assumption that “normal” people can’t do terrible things. The opposite is born out by the facts.
  2. When a crime is committed by someone who in the past had a mental health diagnosis or contact with mental health services or treatment for a mental health problem, whether recent or in the far distant past, it’s assumed that mental illness caused that crime. Again, sloppy journalism which confuses correlation and cause.
  3. When a crime is committed by someone who’s been diagnosed or treated for mental illness, this is extrapolated to portray all people with mental illness as potentially dangerous. Again, sloppy journalism which is not born out by the facts.

If you’re not familiar with Time to Change or their event that night, here’s some information, followed by all the relevant links. As the Time to Change  website says:

“Time to Change is an anti-stigma campaign run by the leading mental health charities Mind and Rethink Mental Illness. These two charities decided to work together, combining their knowledge, skills and expertise, in the biggest attempt yet in England to end the discrimination that surrounds mental health.”

When I first started reading around mental health, I didn’t understand what the word “stigma” meant. And it gets repeated a lot. So I came up with the phrase “negative assumptions” instead, which is pretty straightforward. And discrimination is acting on those negative assumptions.

The Time to Change event aimed to provide:

“a space for journalists to learn more about mental health problems by meeting people with direct experience and hearing their stories, along with some top speakers from the industry.”

It was hosted by Time to Change ambassador Alistair Campbell (writer, communicator and formerly Tony Blair’s press secretary) with celebrity panelists including Denise Welch (presenter of ITV’s Loose Women and former Coronation Street actor), Fiona Phillips (TV presenter and Daily Mirror columnist) and Guardian journalist Mary O’Hara. Media volunteers included Helen Hutchings from Tea and Talking and mental health campaigners Jonathan Benjamin and Erica Camus.

It also aimed to enable journalists to:

  • challenge myths and misconceptions around mental health
  • find out the truth behind the headlines that link mental health with violence
  • join in the debate by asking the panel of experts a question
  • be inspired by the stories of people with experience of mental health problems
  • network with other industry professionals over a glass of wine (the main hook for some attendees no doubt!)

Real stories about mental illness are so much more fascinating than the standard speculation & hyperbole. Hopefully we’ll start to see a gradual improvement in the quality of reporting in Britain’s tabloids and broadsheets when the subject of mental illness comes up.

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