Best Practices of Print Journalists Who Have Won Awards for Mental-Health Reporting: A Qualitative Interview Study



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Both in the United States and abroad, newspapers tend to portray people with mental illness negatively, making them vulnerable to social rejection, discrimination, and forced treatment. This portrayal also makes them hesitant to seek treatment for fear of being stigmatized. To help determine how reporting on mental illness can be improved, I interviewed in this study 11 U.S.-based print journalists who had won awards for stories on mental illness about how they covered their stories. The interviews, which were semi-structured, were conducted between October 2010 and February 2011 and were analyzed using a grounded-theory approach.

Eight themes were identified in the interview transcripts: determining story idea, evaluating newsworthiness, identifying and obtaining information from interview sources, identifying and obtaining information from non-interview sources, ensuring accuracy, building rapport with sources, writing the story, and factors facilitating reporting. Overall, respondents prepared their stories in accordance with journalistic conventions. What helped them produce quality stories was a mixture of the following organizational and personal factors: editorial support, considerable journalism experience, personal exposure to mental illness, and empathy. Also noteworthy were respondents' opinions on suggestions in reporting guides about imitation or copy-cat suicides, sensitive language, and positive mental illness news. Whereas some agreed that reporting suicide details could lead to imitation suicides, others disagreed, explaining, for example, that the details were important to the story. Similarly, respondents expressed diverse views about the importance of using sensitive language to describe individuals with mental illness. Finally, respondents indicated that instead of calling for positive stories on mental illness, media guidelines should encourage thoughtful and balanced reporting on various aspects of mental illness.

In conclusion, the results suggest that it would be valuable to investigate in more detail how journalists' personal attitudes toward mental illness influence their reporting. Also, guidelines for mental-health reporting should be created with the collaboration of journalists and mental-health professionals. Further, there is a need to make journalists aware of the copy-cat suicide phenomenon. Finally, lessons gleaned from respondents' experiences in reporting their award-winning stories can be used to inform mental-health media guides.