“A schizophrenic homeless man who once threatened President Trump and Hillary Clinton was arrested for swinging a machete in Times Square — one of five blades he was carrying, cops said Friday.” This sentence from a recent article in a tabloid newspaper is typical of what is seen in news reports throughout the English-speaking world. The psychiatric diagnostic history of the perpetrator of a violent act is casually mentioned; although an explicit connection between the act and the diagnosis is not made, the reader is encouraged to draw a connection between the two (why else would it be mentioned?). Notably, the race/ethnicity of the alleged perpetrator is not stated, in accordance with current practices endorsed by organizations such as the Society of Professional Journalists, which recommend that race not be mentioned unless it is central to the story.
The tendency for news reports to disproportionately discuss the mental health status of perpetrators of violent crime has been documented for many years in a painstaking form of research known as “content analysis.” In 2005, Pat Corrigan and colleagues published a content analysis of the main focus of all stories related to mental illness in major US newspapers (defined as having a circulation greater than 250,000) during six week-long periods. They found that the largest category of stories (39%) concerned dangerousness, and that these stories were frequently highlighted in the front section of the newspaper (37% of all “front” section mental health stories concerned violent crime). More recent analyses of reporting in Canada and the UK found that roughly 40% of reports on mental illness continue to focus on violence and that such reports continue to be featured prominently.
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Philip Yanos Ph.D.
Psychology Today, March 4, 2018