Every election year in the United States is a study in the limitations of “the media.” This year, the fact that Donald Trump has a legitimate shot at being elected president of the United States tells you pretty much all you need to know about what kind of job the media has done making sure voters are informed.
If you have ADHD, you already know how one-dimensional media coverage can be.
Typically, the media works by quickly establishing a single narrative on an issue, then filtering all further information through that narrative. In the case of ADHD, there’s the narrative of overdiagnosis, “medicalizing childhood,” kids on speed, study drugs, etc.
It’s not that ADHD isn’t inappropriately diagnosed in some cases or that there aren’t doctors who do need to know more about ADHD. The problem is that almost everything about ADHD in the media gets filtered through this lens, skewing most people’s perception of what ADHD really is. There’s a reason that of the dozens of interesting peer-reviewed studies of ADHD that get published every month, the ones that reinforce the narrative of ADHD as a “modern invention” are the ones that get widespread media coverage.
So why does this happen? Is it a big conspiracy?
Doubtful – that would be way too much work! Most likely the reason is that once there’s a certain narrative about an issue established in the media, it’s just easier to do stories that reinforce that narrative. You can create them quickly because you know what you’re going to say, and they’re safe to publish because stories that just reinforce the biases your readers or viewers already hold won’t ruffle too many feathers.
On the other hand, stories that challenge conventional wisdom or introduce information that contradicts what your audience already thinks are risky. I’d guess that people doing that kind of journalism are less likely to rise in the ranks at the New York Times (to name one institution that’s gotten a lot of mileage out of ADHD).
There’s a similar situation with how millennials are portrayed in the media. If I were to believe everything I see in the media, I’d expect my generation to be uniformly lazy, narcissistic and entitled.
In reality, there seems to be a diverse range of human qualities on display in every generation. I’ve encountered plenty of humble, down-to-earth and hard-working people in my generation, just like I’ve encountered lazy, narcissistic and entitled people in other generations.
A good example of how the media has latched onto a simplistic narrative about millennials is this New York Times piece that was published on Saturday. What’s truly remarkable about this article is that it manages to spin a single employee who skipped work to build a treehouse into a symbol for an entire generation.
This kind of piece is all about reinforcing a specific narrative about millennials that already exists. Obviously, the idea of extrapolating something one person did into a statement about an entire generation is logically absurd, but because the narrative about entitled millennials has been so firmly established in the media, many readers will find themselves simply nodding along and having their biases reinforced.
Writers and editors love these pieces because they’re not original journalism, they’re just recycling the same article that’s been rewritten a hundred times in slightly different ways, and what could be easier than that?
Now, you might have noticed that when I talk about the media, I’ve been talking about newspapers and TV so far. But there’s another kind of media, of course.
On the internet, things work differently. Anyone can write whatever they want, and there’s a complete spectrum of perspectives that you can seek out. There aren’t any central narratives that get built up, then repeated ad infinitum.
To see why this sort of democratic media is so powerful, you just need to ask a simple question: how does the number of people who have been clued onto the fact that they have undiagnosed ADHD from reading something on the internet compare to the number of people who have been clued onto the fact that they have undiagnosed ADHD from reading an article in the New York Times?
As a society, we haven’t yet grasped how big the split is between people who get their information online and people who get it from traditional media. But I think we’re moving toward the point where it’s going to be impossible to ignore.
Part of this is a generational split – younger people are much more likely to get their information online. But there are “early adopters” in other generations, just like there are millennials who are lagging behind.
I’d guess that this difference in media consumption plays out in very concrete ways as far as how people view the world. When I think of the people who are most militant about the ideas that “ADHD is a fake disorder” and “millennials are the entitled generation,” these generally aren’t people in their 20’s. In fact, I’d say they’re usually people right smack in the middle of the Times‘ target demographic.
This difference in how people get information is something that makes me very optimistic. There are a lot of reasons to be pessimistic in 2016, but the fact that the media as we know it is being turned upside down should give you hope.
As more of society moves toward getting their information online (i.e., as millennials become a larger portion of society), we’re going to start seeing some of the old dogmas that were reinforced through media narratives melt away (assuming the internet stays set up basically the way it is now). This is great news for people with ADHD and people with any mental illness. It means society is moving toward being more ADHD-friendly and away from stigmatizing mental illness.
Of course, I’m preaching to the choir – if you’ve discovered Psych Central, chances are you already know how empowering it can be to get your information online rather than through the TV. But my other point here is about how we deal with frustratingly slanted coverage of ADHD from prominent news outlets.
We can only do so much to push for more three-dimensional takes on ADHD in print and on TV, but we can participate in the massive shift toward online information, which is how we’re really going to spread awareness of ADHD (or any other issue). And as far as traditional media sources promoting warped depictions of ADHD, we can remember: this too shall pass.
What d’you think? How has being able to get information online impacted your ADHD treatment? Comment below!