Lessons learned: Joseph Howe Symposium 2014

Writers can’t always imagine what influence their stories can have, whether negative or positive, but taking small measures in preventing harm and providing information is significant.

Last weekend’s Joseph Howe Symposium on media, youth and mental health left the audience with better approaches in dealing with mental health related stories. The panelists and topics discussed explored journalism’s history of writing about mental illness, its current situation, and suggestions for the future.
One of the main points put forward by André Picard, health columnist from the Globe and Mail, is to make sure stories around mental health are not just “patient porn.” Stories like that don’t include complexity or context, but rather focus on a personal experience for an emotional and easy story. Picard advised journalists to find a wrong or a right in a story instead of exploiting people. He stressed the importance of covering stories dispassionately, but purposely, and including proper facts, content and intent.
Journalists should not be limited to covering the extremes of mental illness. Instead of just covering the “worst of the worst” or “the best of the best,” as Picard mentioned, the media should cover more middle ground stories. Journalists tend to cover the small percentage of those with mental illness who commit violent crimes.
Balance is important. Stories on people from a range of backgrounds, from employees and students to families, are ones that merit more coverage. Also, stories about successful mental health programs could potentially inspire social change.
When it comes to covering suicide reporter Frances Willick suggested to not shy away from stories that have a purpose as it can be beneficial. Though there is always potential for copycats, which is categorized as inappropriate media reporting, journalists still have an influential role in tackling stigma. Writers can’t always imagine what influence their stories can have, whether negative or positive, but taking small measures in preventing harm and providing information is significant. Many panelists suggested avoiding the phrase  “commit suicide”. This implies illegality and is no longer appropriate. Dr. Stan Kutcher, Sun Life Financial Chair in Adolescent Mental Health, encourages journalists to ask themselves a few questions before reporting on suicide to make sure stories are transparent, accurate and prevent harm. Some of these questions journalists should consider are,  ‘ is the evidence complete?,’  ‘are we decreasing rates of suicide?,’ ‘do we understand the specific type of mental illness?.’ It’s important to recognize that the media can greatly affect society’s perceptions and challenge the norms.
The distinction between education and information is important. Journalists do have a responsibility in providing information to prevent harm, but according to Picard, that does not necessarily mean it’s a journalist’s responsibility to educate. Although some stories can lead to copycats, it’s important to weigh in the release of a story that could potentially affect a greater outcome. Including details of the method used to end a life, for example, should be prevented.
Language around mental health was a topic repeated throughout the symposium. Journalists should remember that the voices used in the stories have great influence in shaping society’s perceptions. Rather than only using experts speaking in clinical terms, speaking with affected people to add personal depth to the story is important.
Symposium attendees were reminded that they do have influence on social and political change if they provide purposeful and factual stories while recognizing their potential to change the stigma attached to mental illness.

By David J. Shuman

David is the current editor-in-chief of The Watch and writes on student issues and events. Find him on Twitter: @DavidJShuman

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