Mental health stories suffer when journalists are taught to put neutrality before empathy
Anna Mehler Paperny was in an interview for an internship several years ago when she was asked how she would cover a suicide. She told the interviewer what questions she would ask and how she would go about asking them. It was a trick question, she was told: you never report on suicide.
“That was the norm at the time,” says the Toronto based reporter for Reuters. “You pretended like it wasn’t there—in my opinion, that was a mistake.”
One of the first things students get taught in journalism school is the importance of objectivity. You are a journalist, not an activist, and you must remain impartial at all times.
Paperny—whose memoir, Hello I Want to Die Please Fix Me: Depression in the First Person was published in 2019—says that she has witnessed first-hand the evolution of how journalists cover mental health, and has seen a difference since she was a student, applying for that internship.
“You pretended like [mental illness] wasn’t there,” Paperny says. “I think that made it so much easier to ignore.”
In 2017, the Canadian Journalism Forum on Violence and Trauma published a free guide for newsrooms and journalism schools on how to fairly and accurately report on mental health issues. The guide discusses topics like stigmas, addiction, mental health in Indigenous people, and suicide. Covering such issues requires journalists to balance compassion and objectivity, according to André Picard, a health reporter for The Globe and Mail and contributor to the CJF guide.
“The most influential change that media can and should make is to start treating mental illness the way they do physical illness: with curiosity, compassion, and a strong dose of indignation when people are mistreated or wronged,” wrote Picard in the foreword. He also argued that journalists need to be aware of the missing pieces of mental health coverage and be the ones to bring change to their reporting.
Tanya Miller, mental health initiatives consultant at Langara College and a former journalism student, says that reporting on mental health often involves journalists going against their instincts.
“It’s hard in journalism,” says Miller. “We’re taught to be objective, but maybe that doesn’t serve important issues like mental illness, because you do have to be empathetic and human to tell a full story.”
Miller also thinks that news media have a huge impact on how mental health is viewed on a societal level. “I wouldn’t say it’s [journalists’] responsibility to decrease stigma or increase conversation, but they definite-ly have an impact on how it’s portrayed.”
Changing the language surrounding mental health coverage is key to changing those perceptions, according to Jan Wong, a former reporter for The Globe and Mail and professor at St. Thomas University. She says journalists need to add more context to their stories: “I think that we forget to write important sentences. Things like ‘the vast majority of people with mental illness are not violent,’”
And that context starts with the right questions, Wong adds: “There are too many loaded questions.”