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How the media covers suicide: Day 1

shutterstock_145597057Covering Suicide and Mental Illness is a three-day seminar for journalists sponsored by The Poynter Institute, The McCormick Specialized Reporting Institute and the Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention. Here are my thoughts on issues covered during today’s session. #suicidereporting

What the DSM is to mental health, the AP Stylebook is to journalism. The Stylebook is our Bible. It not only tells us where and when to put our commas, it provides journalists with a uniform set of rules for grammar, principals and practices.

The Associated Press first published the Stylebook in 1953 and updates it every year. On March 7, 2013 – three months after the Sandy Hook school shooting – the AP added an entry on mental illness to the Stylebook. Below is an excerpt from the guidelines, the new industry standard:

mental illness 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 to the incident.

Avoid descriptions that connote pity, such as afflicted with, suffers from or victim of. Rather, he has obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Eighteen months and a celebrity suicide later, how are we doing? Depends on where you got your news about the suicide of Robin Williams. The debate over the dinner table tonight was whether the Marin County sheriff’s office went too far in releasing lurid details about Williams’ suicide.

Were those details necessary or salacious? Are we providing readers and viewers with a do-it-yourself suicide manual when we publish such details? What is the news value in adding those details?

These are the kinds of questions that journalists can and should mull over when they are not on deadline. But, we rarely do. It’s on to the next story.

Today, however, about two dozen of us got a chance to do this with the guidance of some of the top mental health and journalism specialists in the country. Besides the new AP Stylebook guideline, we learned about another style guide on reporting on mental health.

This guide was put together by TEAM Up, (Tools for Entertainment and Media) a project in California that provides resources and assistance to help journalists and the entertainment industry create accurate stories on mental health issues.

I like this guide because you start by asking just three questions:

  1. Is mental illness relevant to the story?
  2. What is your source for the mental illness diagnosis?
  3. What is the most accurate language to use?

Melissa McCoy, a consultant for TEAM Up and former deputy managing editor at the Los Angeles Times, gave us some tips on language. For starters, don’t say someone “committed suicide.”

“Think of what it sounds like to say someone has “committed” something,” McCoy said. “Like someone has committed a crime.”

“Crazy,” “Psycho,” “Nuts,” “Lunatic,” “Deranged,” – don’t use these words. Don’t make a person their illness:

Bad: “She’s an anorexic.”

Preferred: “She was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa.”

Bad: “He’s a schizophrenic.”

Preferred: “He was diagnosed with schizophrenia.”

And on and on and on…

These things may sound insignificant. But sometimes, it’s these little turn of phrases repeated over and over that fuel the stigma surrounding mental illness. We’ve got to break it down, one…word…at…a…time.

Woman reading newspaper image available from Shutterstock.

How the media covers suicide: Day 1

Christine Stapleton

Christine Stapleton has been a journalist for 35 years. She is now an investigative reporter for The Palm Beach Post. In 2006, began writing a blog for PsychCentral called Depression on My Mind. Her latest blog, Addiction Matters, draws on her 19 years of sobriety and her coverage of the drug treatment industry in South Florida.

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APA Reference
Stapleton, C. (2014). How the media covers suicide: Day 1. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 1, 2020, from


Last updated: 16 Sep 2014
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