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Exploring anxiety
Exploring anxiety

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2.2 Coverage of mental health and research in the media

You may have noticed that some broadcasters and newspapers tend to go into greater depth in their reports, provide more accurate, balanced or measured coverage. They may attempt to present an analysis of findings or contrasting points of view, perhaps discussing the implications or limitations of the research in some way to ensure responsible reporting. Occasionally, however, headlines in the press can be more sensationalist.

It is important to recognise that the way information is presented in the media varies according to the perspective of the groups and individuals concerned, and these can come into conflict with one another. Some groups may appear to ‘play down’ a particular concern, while others seek to magnify it, depending on their own interests. What constitutes news may have clear political and cultural sensitivity as well as significance, and sometimes certain aspects can be given disproportionate attention.

An example of this – the first item noted in Box 1 – is the focus in the media on violent crime or incidents perpetuated by or involving individuals experiencing mental health problems. This is arguably one of the most significant contributions to the ‘fear factor’ and stigma surrounding mental illness within the community. Negative reporting of mental health problems, particularly stories that include elements of stereotypes (see Section 1.1 for some common misconceptions) are very powerful. They fuel deep-rooted cultural fears (social fears and anxieties) of mental illness and an unfounded notion that institutions (asylums of earlier centuries) ‘protect’ society as much as, if not more than, the people who are detained therein. This is clearly a distorted image − one that gives a disproportionate amount of attention to the risk of violence by people experiencing mental distress compared with other risks affecting them. The priority given to the risk of violence is not only highly stigmatising, but may mean that other types of risk, such as the risk of self-harm, are not addressed. This topic is discussed in more detail in the OpenLearn course Challenging ideas in mental health [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] .

Three other key issues that were raised in the SMC consultation report (Bithell, 2010) and have a direct bearing on this course, are worth emphasising here.

  • The first concerns the complexity of this area, the diversity of opinion, and the fact that 'there are few "simple" messages', making it difficult to communicate mental health research and broader issues related to mental health to the media.

  • The second (according to the report) is that Psychiatry and Clinical Psychology differ in their approaches to and views of mental ill health, such that 'many psychiatrists felt that a psychological or social approach (rather than a medical approach) tended to be given undue publicity, whereas psychologists often felt that a medical approach was the dominant view given in the media' (Bithell, 2010).

  • The third is that news stories often focus on controversial areas, 'experts' quoted may not necessarily be the best qualified to comment, and it can be difficult to respond in a timely way to breaking news stories with little warning and tight deadlines.