UPDATE: Wednesday, August 14, 2013
In response to my blog posted yesterday, I received an email this afternoon from a spokeswoman at NBC. Thank you, Brian, for doing the right thing. It means a lot to me – as both a journalist and a person with two mental illnesses. Below is the text of the email from the NBC spokeswoman:
Brian immediately realized the error of his words, and he updated the broadcast to omit that phrase for later feeds. The corrected video that aired in the rest of the country that night is online here. We sincerely apologize for the unintended offense caused by these remarks and hope you can forgive the mistake.
Tuesday, August 13, 2013
As the recent furor over remarks made by Dr. Phil and news-anchor Brian Williams about mental illness seems to have subsided, I can’t help but wonder about the discussions that the shows’ producers had about how to respond to the outcry.
I am a journalist – a newspaper reporter – not a high-profile, well-paid network news anchor – like Brian Williams – who for much of his career has merely read the news that other journalists have gathered and reported. I am also mentally ill. I have alcoholism and bipolar disorder II, also known as hypo-mania.sorry
In the last month we have heard Dr. Phil, the daytime talk-show host/psychologist who likes to “get real,” and NBC nightly news anchor Brian Williams, each make a major semantic faux pas on national television.
Dr. Phil calmed a guest’s worries by telling her that her obsession did not mean that she was “insane” because insane people “suck on rocks and bark at the moon.” Then Brian Williams described Ariel Castro, the Cleveland man who held three women captive and raped them for years, as “arguably the face of mental illness.”
I am not surprised the Dr. Phil has not apologized or retracted or even tried to explain his remarks despite calls for him to do so by the country’s major mental health organizations, the National Alliance on Mental Illness and Mental Health America. Dr. Phil is a talk-show host who routinely sacrifices his credibility in the name of ratings. Unfortunately, we have come to expect those kinds of reckless comments from television personalities.
But Brian Williams’ silence is disturbing. I would like to know if his silence is voluntary or imposed upon him by his producers and network officials. I know how these discussions and decisions go because in my 30+ years as a journalist, I have been in them. While the reporter has a say, the editors, producers, lawyers and company officials make the final decision.
I would hope that in the discussions someone decided to consult the AP Stylebook, often called the journalist’s bible. Published annually by the Associated Press, the stylebook is a style and usage guide for grammar, punctuation and principles and practices of reporting. It provides continuity and semantic etiquette. You will find a copy on the desks of most copy-editors in the U.S.
The stylebook is also a guide for political correctness. Unfortunately, many editors and reporters no longer use it for that purpose. If Brian Williams and his producers had done so, they would have known better than to describe Ariel Castro as “arguably the face of mental illness.” Here is entry on mental illness in the stylebook:
Do not describe an individual as mentally ill unless it is clearly pertinent to a story and the diagnosis is properly sourced.
When used, identify the source for the diagnosis. Seek firsthand knowledge; ask how the source knows. Don’t rely on hearsay or speculate on a diagnosis. Specify the time frame for the diagnosis and ask about treatment. A person’s condition can change over time, so a diagnosis of mental illness might not apply anymore. Avoid anonymous sources. On-the-record sources can be family members, mental health professionals, medical authorities, law enforcement officials and court records. Be sure they have accurate information to make the diagnosis. Provide examples of symptoms.
Mental illness is a general condition. Specific disorders are types of mental illness and should be used whenever possible: He was diagnosed with schizophrenia, according to court documents. She was diagnosed with anorexia, according to her parents. He was treated for depression.
Do not use derogatory terms, such as insane, crazy/crazed, nuts or deranged, unless they are part of a quotation that is essential to the story.
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.
Avoid descriptions that connote pity, such as afflicted with, suffers from or victim of. Rather, he has obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Double-check specific symptoms and diagnoses. Avoid interpreting behavior common to many people as symptoms of mental illness. Sadness, anger, exuberance and the occasional desire to be alone are normal emotions experienced by people who have mental illness as well as those who don’t.
Wherever possible, rely on people with mental illness to talk about their own diagnoses.
Avoid using mental health terms to describe non-health issues. Don’t say that an awards show, for example, was schizophrenic.
Use the term mental or psychiatric hospital, not asylum.
I am going to give Brian Williams the benefit of the doubt. I would like to believe that he wants to go on camera and retract, clarify or apologize for his words. Credibility is all a journalist has and nothing would give him more credibility right now than to say something about his comments.
The horrific events of the last two years have brought mental illness out of the closet. We are finally discussing mental illness and searching for ways – from the words we use to the laws we pass – to discuss, treat and even report on mental illness. We are finally moving forward. Let’s not take a step back. So, please Mr. Williams, say something. Don’t sweep mental illness back under the rug and hope, with time, all will be forgotten.
This time, it won’t.
Sorry image available from Shutterstock.
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Last reviewed: 14 Aug 2013