Guidelines assist press reporting on mental illness

Journalists who write about mental illness are less likely to evoke complaints from the public if they adhere to given guidelines than if they have no formal policy, a survey by mental health charity MACA has found.

Nearly half of the sample questioned had been given guidelines for both reporting and dealing with complaints. Of those who had been given reporting guidelines, 45 per cent had received compliments from the public about the way they covered stories involving mental illness. None had received only complaints.

The use of language also varied widely and was dependent on the journalist’s exposure to mental illness.

MACA suggested words such as ‘mad/madman’, ‘psycho’, ‘maniac’, ‘crazy/crazed’ and ‘nutter/nut’ and asked whether it was acceptable to use these words to describe people with mental illness or those without mental illness.

Fifty-six per cent of journalists thought that all of these words were unacceptable in either case. Using them to describe someone without a mental illness was deemed more acceptable than doing so for someone who did.

Maca chief executive Gil Hitchon said: ‘Having reporting guidelines and complaints policies is not just good practice. It’s also in media firms’ best commercial interests.’

On the style of coverage, 84 per cent felt the public most benefited from reading about personal accounts of living with a mental illness, and 36 per cent said reports of new scientific research would be beneficial.

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