Monday, January 18, 2016

Newspaper Reporting of Homicide-Suicide and Mental Illness

Aims and method 
To explore the portrayal of homicide-suicide in newspaper articles, particularly how mental illness was reported. We carried out a qualitative study in England and Wales (2006-2008). Data from newspaper articles obtained via the LexisNexis database were used to examine a consecutive series of 60 cases. 

A fascination with extreme violence, vulnerable victims and having someone to blame made homicide-suicides newsworthy. Some offenders were portrayed in a stereotypical manner and pejorative language was used to describe mental illness. The findings showed evidence of inaccurate and speculative reference to mental disorder in newspaper reports. 

Clinical implications 
The media should avoid speculation on people's mental state. Accurate reporting is essential to reduce stigma of mental illness, which may in turn encourage people to seek help if they experience similar emotional distress...

Themes emerging from newspaper analysis
Theme 1: What makes homicide-suicide newsworthy?
  • Fascination with extreme violence and personal tragedy
  • Characteristics of victims and offenders
  • Having someone to blame
Theme 2: How are homicide-suicides reported?
  • Offender stereotypes
  • The offender's personality
  • Mental illness
Theme 3: Accuracy of newspaper reports of mental illness
  • Speculation that the incident was motivated by mental illness

Newspaper interest in homicide-suicide
We found that homicide-suicides were highly newsworthy, with 90% reported in national and local newspapers, an average of 22 articles per incident. There are aspects of these offences which made them of public interest, notably they involved multiple victims, the majority of whom were intimate family members, consistent with previous research. Our data showed that extreme violence towards the victim, characteristics of the victim and the perceived failure of services to intervene in certain circumstances added to their media appeal. Emotive language, particularly in headlines, was used to attract the attention of the reader, which was consistent with findings from previous studies.,

Reporting mental illness responsibly
In this study, we found the complexity of the events was often lost in the reporting. People who committed these acts were often assigned labels and portrayed in a stereotypical manner. We found evidence of derogatory language used to describe mental illness, such as ‘nut’ or ‘psycho’, although the majority of articles referred to people with mental illness more sensitively. This finding is consistent with a recent study undertaken by researchers at the Institute of Psychiatry in the UK which showed a decrease in the number of articles using pejorative language and referring to people with mental illness as being dangerous. The data also showed a simultaneous increase in anti-stigmatising newspaper articles and positive mental health promotion. However, the research reported no overall change in the proportion of stigmatising articles between 2008 and 2011...

Full article at:

By:  Flynn S1Gask L1Shaw J1.
  • 1University of Manchester, UK. 
  •  2015 Dec;39(6):268-72. doi: 10.1192/pb.bp.114.049676.

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