May 3, 2019

Mental health is arguably a full-time beat in every single newsroom.

Mental health issues pop up every day in news reports, between the increase in mass shootings, the opioid crisis or the prevalence of PTSD in communities where acts of terrorism or natural disasters have inflicted mass trauma.

Half of all adults will experience a mental illness at some time and one in five needed treatment in the past year.

Many newsrooms are striving to expand their coverage and understanding of the topic. I was in Minneapolis recently working with American Public Media and Minnesota Pubic Radio, which has a new initiative to increase coverage of mental health over the next five years.  My colleague Kristen Hare wrote this week about an effort at the Durango (Colorado) Herald paper to address teen suicide.

And May is Mental Health Awareness Month.

An increase in coverage will inevitably lead to an increase in the number of ethical mistakes and missteps that journalists make. These errors often perpetuate stereotypes and spread falsehoods, making the public more misinformed and less capable of getting help when they need it.

Whether you are proceeding with the intention of doing more and better mental health coverage, doing trend stories for the month of May or just reacting to the latest traumatic news, here are the top mistakes that journalists make, so you can avoid them.


1. Reporting predominantly on mental illness as a cause for violent crime.


Problem: This is a distortion. Several content analysis studies have demonstrated that the media most often mention mental illness in the context of violence. This study suggested that violence is the prompt for reporting on mental illness 55% of the time. It also suggested that treatment is only mentioned 47% of the time and successful treatment is only mentioned 14% of time. In reality, those with mental illness are much more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators.

Solution: Change the mix. Intentionally do more stories about mental illness that document successful treatment. Make a concerted effort to add resources to the beat, redirect resources from health reporting, or to cover mental health issues across the beats such as education, government, economy and sports.

2. Allowing the wrong sources to describe a diagnosis.

Problem: Often the experts are wrong. This is not to discount their value as a source. But when you allow a family to use medical terms, like this article where Kate Spade’s sister tells her childhood hometown newspaper that the stress of work “flipped the switch where she eventually became a full-on manic depressive,” you do a disservice to your audience. Just as we shouldn’t allow people who aren’t climate change scientists to inaccurately describe the science of climate change, we shouldn’t amplify unverified information from non-medical professionals.

Solution: When someone uses a medical diagnosis, ask how they know that’s the right term. If an individual or someone with reason to know tells you he or she was diagnosed, include that information in the story. Sometimes  sources may reveal they arrived at the medical terms they are using by assumption. Then you can ask them what they observed that lead to that conclusion.

3. Using a source in your story without getting informed consent.

Problem: Journalists are not trained to determine if someone is competent enough to agree to be part of a story.

Solution: When working with a source on a personal story about mental illness, ask these questions to determine if he is able to agree. (This is a good matrix for other vulnerable sources as well.)

  • Does he understand all the places where the story will appear?
  • Does she have a support system in place, even an informal one?
  • Is he competent to make basic daily decisions about health and safety?
  • Can she grasp and make use of the concept of “off the record?”
  • Is he able to seek help from someone other than the journalist, if needed?
  • Is she a legal adult?

I’m not suggesting that a negative answer to any of these questions immediately disqualifies a person from being part of a story. But a series of negative answers certainly would. As I’ve advised journalists taking part in an extended reporting process, I’ve encouraged them to ask this question at the beginning of the process: If you seem like you need help, who would you want me to call?

I spent a day this week at American Public Media training the staff in the ethics of covering mental health issues. Reporters from Minneapolis Public Radio and Marketplace attended the workshop, along with staff from across the company, including the classical music hosts.

APM and MPR are kicking off a five-year initiative to encourage conversations about mental health that educate the public and destigmatize the issue. The project, Call to Mind, was born  out of the energy that also created the podcasts “Terrible, Thanks for Asking” and “The Hilarious World of Depression.

Babette Apland, managing director of the project, said there was no single event that precipitated it.

“Rather, a realization that through our social impact mission, mental health is area that we can support individuals and society in moving forward,” she told me.  “Our goals are to increase understanding and empathy.”

The project has ambitions to partner with journalists and other content creators beyond APM’s immediate family, building an extensive body of work across the country.

Apland and her colleague Sam Choo, the content manager, believe they can provide other news organizations a roadmap and resources, if they are serious about improving their coverage. Those resources include this fabulous style guide which expands on the many concerns journalists have as they approach the topic.

The news of the day will likely force you to cover mental illness at some point. If you follow these guidelines, at the very least you won’t make things worse. You won’t unnecessarily hurt your sources. And you won’t inadvertently perpetuate false information and stereotypes.

When done well, good coverage provides a public service to citizens and communities.

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Kelly McBride is a journalist, consultant and one of the country’s leading voices on media ethics and democracy. She is senior vice president and chair…
Kelly McBride

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