Think Before You Write: Three Tips for Reporters
Journalists and the stories they write can be very influential in shaping our understanding and perspectives on issues, and more and more mental health organizations have been calling on journalists to be more responsible in reporting about mental health and behavioral health issues. The Carter Center Mental Health Program has focused on this effort for many years and this week released “The Carter Center Journalism Resource Guide on Behavioral Health” during the three-day annual meeting of the Rosalynn Carter Fellowships for Mental Health Journalism.
Developed in part with funding and subject matter expertise from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the guide aims to improve reporting and decrease discrimination and stereotypes about behavioral health. With the great success of The Rosalynn Carter Fellowships for Mental Health Journalism Program, this guide empowers more journalists to increase the coverage and quality of behavioral health issues with clear guidelines for accuracy and fairness.
According to the resource guide, the following are three important questions reporters should consider:
1. Is mental illness or substance use relevant to the story?
If it is not meaningfully linked to the story, there is no need to mention it. Avoid speculation and the generalized belief that behavioral health conditions explain unusual acts or behavior.
2. What is your source for the mental illness and substance use diagnosis?
Don’t rely on hearsay. If someone’s mental and substance use disorder is relevant, make sure your source is authorized to share information about the person’s lived experience and that the information is accurate. Often individual circumstances have much more impact on events, such as violence or homicide covered in breaking news, than the presence of behavioral health conditions.
3. What is the most accurate language to use?
Using terms like “crazy,” “lunatic,” or “psycho” can perpetuate stereotypes and the discrimination experienced by people living with behavioral health conditions. Describe the individual first as a person who also is living with a specific behavioral health issue. It is important to note that the most accurate term to use is “substance use,” not “substance abuse” or “substance misuse.”
We all have a role to play when it comes to choosing the correct words in our everyday language. Another great resource provided by the Carter Center is a visual graphic titled “Words Matter.” Although it is directed to reporters all of us can be reminded to use “Person first” language—words that describe a person as having a condition and not as the condition itself (e.g., a person with schizophrenia vs. a schizophrenic, people with a mental illness vs. the mentally ill)—helps humanize the issue by placing the focus on the person living with a health condition.
By encouraging journalists and media professionals to think more carefully about what they are sharing and the language they use, more people will start using the same language and consideration toward those with mental health challenges.