Media’s Role in Public Health: Suicide and Mass Shootings

Jared Boot

Jared Boot

Jared Boot
PsyD Student, Michigan School of Psychology
jboot@msp.edu

The recent twin weekend shootings in El Paso and Dayton and the high-profile suicide of Jeffrey Epstein, have raised concerns over media depictions of mental illness and suicide. Mass media has an immense potential to positively or negatively impact health-related behavior and perception of individuals with mental health issues (Leask, Hooker, & King, 2010). Thus, journalists should make an effort not to perpetuate negative beliefs about mental illness and those who seek or receive mental health treatment.

To reduce suicide, the World Health Organization (WHO) released guidelines https://www.who.int/mental_health/suicide-prevention/resource_booklet_2017/en/ for responsible and quality media coverage of suicide. These guidelines were made to “work with media professionals to ensure that reporting of suicide is responsible and encourages accurate messaging and avoids posing a risk” (WHO, 2017, p.2). The guidelines suggest that (a) the journalists should provide information to the public as to where to seek help when reporting a suicide-related story, (b) suicide-related stories should not be featured prominently or repeated often on media outlets, (c) sensational headlines should not be used and they should not include the term “suicide,” and (d) the word “commit” should be avoided when describing a suicide since it may connote criminality and thereby, contribute to perpetuating stereotypical thinking about those who have engaged in suicidal behaviors or ended their lives. Instead the guidelines say it is better to say “died by suicide” or “took his/her life” (WHO, 2017, p. 6)

It is important to follow the above-mentioned WHO recommendations to reduce stigma because suicide is often stigmatized and is even illegal in some countries. An Austrian study (Niederkrotenthaler & Sonneck, 2007) provides support to the assertion that implementing the WHO media guidelines can help improve the quality of reporting and discourage suicidal behaviors.

The media’s depiction of gun violence and their visceral reaction of linking shootings to poor mental health (Hoffner, Fujioka, Cohen, & Atwell Seate, 2017) is yet another concern in addition to the problematic coverage of suicide. This reaction perpetuates stigma and contributes to the public’s perception that those with mental illness are unpredictably dangerous and violent (Angermeyer & Schulze, 2001; McGinty, Webster, Jarlenski, & Barry, 2014; Sieff, 2003). Furthermore, such popular media channels as Twitter and Facebook have users who readily spread stigmatizing messages about mental illness from traditional media to many of their followers after mass shootings (Budenz, Purtle, Klassen, Yom-Tov, Yudell, & Massey, 2018). More sensitivity and nuance in reporting could help avoid perpetuating stigmatizing tropes about mental illness and gun violence.

The metanalysis by McGinty et al. (2014) concluded that “news media portrayals of persons with SMI as violent may contribute to the seemingly intractable negative public attitudes toward persons with serious [mental] conditions” (p. 410). Hoffner et al. (2017) found that disclosure of mental health treatment to family or friends was less likely after negative media depiction of mental illness. Untreated mental illness, rather than the mental illness itself, can increase the odds that somebody will carry out an act of violence on others or themselves (Yelderman, Joseph, West, & Butler, 2019).

The adverse societal effects of media perpetuating stigma about mental illness are severe and require urgent change and action. The media must assume a sense of social accountability and responsibly cover issues involving mental illness. According to Yelderman et al. (2019), stigma reduction about mental illness is a feasible goal to aim for and achieving it will likely reduce mass shooting violence. Media outlets should follow the WHO (2017) guidelines on suicide reporting, and the WHO should consider drafting guidelines for quality reporting of mass shootings and mental health to reduce stigma. Implementing the suggested changes could help improve the quality of reporting in traditional media and also help avoid the spread of stigma on Twitter, Facebook, and other messaging channels.

References

Angermeyer, M. C., & Schulze, B. (2001). Reinforcing stereotypes: How the focus on forensic cases in news reporting may influence public attitudes towards the mentally ill. International Journal of Law and Psychiatry, 24(4-5), 469-486.

Budenz, A., Purtle, J., Klassen, A., Yom-Tov, E., Yudell, M., & Massey, P. (2018). The case of a mass shooting and violence-related mental illness stigma on Twitter. Stigma and Health.

Hoffner, C. A., Fujioka, Y., Cohen, E. L., & Atwell Seate, A. (2017). Perceived media influence, mental illness, and responses to news coverage of a mass shooting. Psychology of Popular Media Culture, 6(2), 159-173.

Leask, J., Hooker, C., & King, C. (2010). Media coverage of health issues and how to work more effectively with journalists: A qualitative study. BMC Public Health, 10.

McGinty, E. E., Webster, D. W., Jarlenski, M., & Barry, C. L. (2014). News media framing of serious mental illness and gun violence in the United States, 1997-2012. American Journal of Public Health, 104(3), 406-413.

Niederkrotenthaler, T., & Sonneck, G. (2007). Assessing the impact of media guidelines for reporting on suicides in Austria: Interrupted time series analysis. Australian & New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 41(5), 419-428.

Sieff, E. (2003). Media frames of mental illnesses: The potential impact of negative frames. Journal of Mental Health, 12(3), 259-269.

World Health Organization. (2017). Preventing suicide: A resource for media professionals. Geneva, Switzerland: Author.

Yelderman, L. A., Joseph, J. J., West, M. P., & Butler, E. (2019). Mass shootings in the United States: Understanding the importance of mental health and firearm considerations. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 25(3), 212-223.

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