AP stylebook adds entry on mental illness

AP Stylebook | NAB
The Associated Press has introduced guidance on how to use information about mental illness in coverage. “Do not describe an individual as mentally ill unless it is clearly pertinent to a story and the diagnosis is properly sourced,” the new Stylebook entry begins.

In the immediate aftermath of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary that left 20 children and 7 adults dead, there was much speculation about the mental health of shooter Adam Lanza.

By email, AP spokesperson Paul Colford acknowledged that shooting was a factor.

“Newtown was certainly among the reasons we considered this carefully, as well as the run of other mass shootings where the state of the shooter was an issue. Editors heard from and sounded out mental health experts and welcomed their input,” he said.

AP’s recommendations could prevent news organizations from repeating some mistakes they made in December:

“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.”

Just after the shooting, NPR science reporter Jon Hamilton told Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon: “I have not seen wild accounts, I haven’t seen a lot of headlines saying autism can explain the shooting. I think the media in this case, they’ve been pretty good. … Virginia Tech, Columbine — in every one of these instances there’s been some talk about mental health issues. I think what’s happened is the experts and advocacy groups have realized it’s a given it’s gonna come out and you should get out in front.”

The National Association of Broadcasters expressed support for the AP’s approach in a statement published on its website. It reads, in part: “NAB will help educate broadcasters on this initiative, and we encourage our network partners and newsroom personnel at all radio and television stations to adopt the suggested guidelines.”

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