Post Newtown, AP adds ‘mental illness’ entry

Guidelines warn against conflating mental illness and violence

After Adam Lanza killed 20 children on December 14, a host of subsequent coverage of the Newtown, CT, massacre focused on whether or not he was mentally ill and, if so, how his illness may have affected his actions.

Most of the speculation centered on whether or not Lanza had autism—which is not a mental illness but often gets lumped in with them—leading to enraged pushback by advocates that (rightfully) resented the implication the developmental disorder causes violence. (A joint investigation between Frontline and the Hartford Courant reported that Lanza did have a diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome.)

Turns out all this coverage was crafted with no official standards guiding how journalists should treat mental illness in their reporting—the Associated Press Stylebook, the main arbiter of style and usage in journalism, lacked an entry on mental illness until Thursday.

Autism figures prominently in the entry:

Autism spectrum disorders. These include Asperger’s syndrome, a mild form of autism. Many experts consider autism a developmental disorder, not a mental illness

As does a warning against conflating mental illness and violence:

Do not assume that mental illness is a factor in a violent crime, and verify statements to that effect. A past history of mental illness is not necessarily a reliable indicator. 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.

Avoid unsubstantiated statements by witnesses or first responders attributing violence to mental illness. A first responder often is quoted as saying, without direct knowledge, that a crime was committed by a person with a “history of mental illness.” Such comments should always be attributed to someone who has knowledge of the person’s history and can authoritatively speak to its relevance to the incident.

Sidenote: In addition to the AP’s codified reminder to tread lightly in reporting that deals with mental illness and violence, journalists might also keep in mind that the very definition of what is considered “mentally ill” is malleable.

Until 1973, for example, the American Psychiatric Association regarded “homosexuality” as a mental illness. When the APA’s newly updated Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders comes out in a couple of months, this round of changes includes deleting Asperger’s syndrome in favor of a more general diagnosis of “autism spectrum disorder.” Some autism activists will push back against this change—tweaking diagnostic criteria could affect some people’s access to services if they no longer qualify for their prior diagnosis, is the logic—so going forward, reporter and source word choice in this area may become a political act along the lines of “pro-life” vs. “anti-abortion.”

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Kira Goldenberg was an associate editor at CJR from 2012-2015. Follow her on Twitter at @kiragoldenberg. Tags: , ,