The ableList (archived) –

The worst in media coverage on disability

Content warning: The articles and discussions below refer to stories about suicide, violence, death, policing, and ableist language.

Danielle Paquette | The Washington Post | November 3, 2023

Security operator sees error message on screen.
Image description: Law enforcement officer sees error message on screen.

The article: Grieving and angry, Maine residents demand change after mass killing

Why it’s a problem: And yet another article, this time in The Washington Post, in which the author makes a concerted effort to frame the mass shooting in Maine as a failure of mental health care rather than a failure of law enforcement to act on a clear threat. The author writes, “[The residents] are calling for accessible mental health care, restrictions on firearms and more aggressive law enforcement action when a person with access to weapons is exhibiting psychosis.”

The number of times that mental health is brought up in in the article? Eleven

The number of times that assault rifles, which are the most common factor in mass shootings, are mentioned as maybe the problem? Three

The number of times that failures by law enforcement agencies to act on the gunman’s numerous threats are discussed in the article? Two

The author does mention that FBI agents were seen distributing chocolate bars at a Halloween event later that week, though, and then at a football game, the author makes a point to mention that the announcer broadcasted to the crowd, “Let’s hear it for our very own heroes in blue, the Lewiston police!” Sounds like someone’s doing some serious damage control.

Source: The Washington Post

Gail Collins | The New York Times | November 1, 2023

A demonstration in New York City for gun control.
Image description: A demonstration in New York City for gun control.

The article: Here’s What Doesn’t Happen After a Mass Shooting

Why it’s a problem: This snarky op-ed from Gail Collins is generally on the right side of the issue, but full of ableist language that didn’t need to be in there, including referring to mass shooters as “crazed.” According to the AP Stylebook, journalists should not “use derogatory terms, such as insane, crazy/crazed, nuts or deranged, unless they are part of a quotation that is essential to the story.” But I guess Collins never got the memo.

Speaking of the AP Stylebook, its entry on covering mental illness is really the gold standard for media. Here are some recommendations that are rarely followed by other publications, particularly after mass shootings:

  • Do not describe an individual as mentally ill unless it is clearly pertinent to a story and the diagnosis is properly sourced.
  • When used, identify the source for the diagnosis. Seek firsthand knowledge; ask how the source knows. Don’t rely on hearsay or speculate on a diagnosis.
  • Do not assume that mental illness is a factor in a violent crime, and verify statements to that effect. A past history of mental illness is not necessarily a reliable indicator.
  • Avoid unsubstantiated statements by witnesses or first responders attributing violence to mental illness. A first responder often is quoted as saying, without direct knowledge, that a crime was committed by a person with a “history of mental illness.”

Back to Gail Collins’ ableism, though. Another problem with her op-ed is the disingenuous way that she reports on a current legislative battle over a VA program that was meant to prevent veteran suicides, by making it seem to be about preventing mass shootings instead. She writes, “The bottom line does seem to be that folks who were judged incompetent to take care of their money would still be OK to walk around with a lethal weapon.” Collins even refers specifically to the Maine mass shooter in referencing this VA program, despite that it has been in effect since 1998, and obviously did not stop Card from obtaining assault weapons.

Suicide is one of the leading causes of death in the United States, especially among marginalized groups. Let’s not confuse programs that are meant to protect our most vulnerable with programs that are meant to stop dangerous killers.

Source: New York Times

Anna Clark | ProPublica | October 31, 2023

Oxford High School in Michigan.
Image description: Oxford High School in Michigan.

The article: A Sweeping Report on a Michigan School Shooting Finds Multiple Failures and a Troubled Aftermath

Why it’s a problem: Although it’s not exactly a secret that threat assessment programs often conflate suicidal risk with risk for harming others (see my post here), this article refers to suicide risk assessment and threat assessment tools almost interchangeably, as if they both can prevent the same type of outcome. But it makes no sense to talk about suicide intervention for the Michigan student who committed a mass shooting at his high school in 2021, when the fact is that the person clearly telegraphed his intentions to hurt other people. The person didn’t need to be in counseling for people to know that he was a danger to others. Although some mass shooters do indeed have suicidal ideation, it’s a distraction to talk about suicide prevention (or mental health care) in these cases, because when people make threats about harming others, that needs to involve an immediate intervention that is categorically different for people in crisis. As I’ve noted before, psychiatric care and psychological counseling can’t be expected to prevent people from committing violence. And because threat assessment programs conflate all types of behaviors under the umbrella of “suspicious,” including neurodivergence, mental illness, political dissent, and existing while racially minoritized, mountain loads of data accumulate, making it harder to identify the real threats. As reported in this New York Times article, Maine law enforcement received numerous tips and alerts about Card’s threats, but because “they receive many,” the gunman slipped through the cracks.

Efforts to destigmatize suicide, which are important if we want to encourage people to reach out for help, are simply not compatible with fear-based frameworks or interventions that continue to criminalize it by conflating suicidal people with mass shooters.

Source: ProPublica

Caitlin Owens | Axios | October 31, 2023

Photo of Donald Trump.
Image description: Photo of Donald Trump.

The article: Trump’s plan to bring back mental institutions

Why it’s a problem: This article is a bit underhanded, because it starts by framing bad policy (a return to asylums) as a Trump invention, but then goes on to provide support for a slightly less evil policy with a seemingly balanced perspective. The author even manages to slip in the ableist adage, “Most homeless people are not mentally ill,” which implies that unlike people experiencing “severe mental illness,” unhoused people deserve not to be completely dehumanized. The rest of the article then proceeds to focus entirely on carceral solutions for people with severe mental illness, promising a break from the past abuses of institutionalization with rosy visions of “animals and a farm” and “behavioral techniques that we’ve perfected.” However, as Liat Ben-Moshe observes in her comprehensive book on the topic, Decarcerating Disability, the common discourse that deinstitutionalization led to the unhoused crisis in the United States “reduces a much more complex process and points the blame toward an easy target—deinstitutionalization—and away from discussions of neoliberal policies that led simultaneously to the growth of the prison system and to a lack of financial support for people with disabilities to live in the community. In essence, the new asylums discourse medicalizes, pathologizes, and psychiatrizes what is a deeply political and socioeconomic issue.” It’s also important to keep in mind that the two most liberal states in the US are currently leading the push for a return to institutionalization, and the violent political rhetoric scapegoating unhoused people and people with mental illness is what led directly to incidents such as the murder of Jordan Neely on a New York City subway train earlier this year.

Source: Axios

Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs and Amelia Nierenberg | The New York Times | October 28, 2023

Early morning on the main shopping street in Bar Harbor, Maine.
Image description: Early morning on the main shopping street in Bar Harbor, Maine.

The article: Gunman in Maine Mass Shooting Had Paranoid Beliefs, Officials Say

Why it’s a problem: With breaking news, it is normal for news outlets to update a story as more information becomes available, but this article from the New York Times is indicative of how breaking news coverage often ends up putting lots of misinformation out to the public during a brief but critical time when readers are most engaged with the story. The information published during this critical time can shape how the public thinks about an issue for a long time, even if that information later turns out to be incorrect. (Consider, for example, the New York Times’ central role in shaping public perception on the Kitty Genovese murder, which had a huge cultural impact for decades.) Therefore, it’s important for news outlets to get the facts right, but aside from appending small corrections at the bottom of the original articles long after public interest has already faded, most news outlets are never held accountable for journalistic malpractice, which seems to be the norm rather than the exception.

One fact that was put out by news outlets in the day after the shooting was that the gunman had been hospitalized a few months prior. This fact was important, because it would have corroborated people’s biases that the gunman must have been mentally ill, and so it’s worth questioning whether any fact-checking was done before news outlets published this information, and it’s worth questioning who or what was the source of this information. The changing details coming out about the gunman, as published in this article, also raise larger questions about how the media often roots for a particular angle on a story, creating “news” that often amounts to little more than law enforcement stenography and conjecture. For example, even while news outlets are retracting earlier details regarding the gunman’s mental health, they are publishing additional hearsay from law enforcement without verification. The authors of this article quote the commissioner, who says that “the man believed, wrongly, that ‘people were talking about him’ and may have also been hearing voices.” But how do we know that the gunman’s belief that people were talking about him was “wrong”? Allegedly, the gunman had been behaving erratically for several months, and made numerous threats against people, so wouldn’t it be logical that people in his circle would be concerned and talking about him? Also note the use of the weasel word, “may,” when inferring about the gunman’s mental health. According to Wikipedia, a weasel word is “a word and phrase aimed at creating an impression that something specific and meaningful has been said when in fact only a vague, ambiguous, or irrelevant claim has been communicated.”

Update (10/29/2023): This article from Politico seems to have the most reliable info, which states that Card did stay at a psychiatric hospital a few months ago after making threats on a military post. The Politico article also underscores my point that if we focus on the threats people make rather than whether or not they are mentally ill, our prevention efforts will be more successful.

Source: New York Times

Emily Mae Czachor | CBS News | October 27, 2023

Portland Light in Cape Elizabeth Maine.
Image description: Portland Light in Cape Elizabeth, Maine.

The article: Who is Robert Card? Maine shooter struggled with mental health

Why it’s a problem: This sloppy reporting from CBS News is emblematic of broader problems in the media when reporting on mass shootings, and how the term mental health has become an ambiguous catch-all for any and all problematic behavior, including criminal. When describing the Maine shooting suspect’s background, the author notes that he has a “history of mental health issues,” but this doesn’t explain and only stigmatizes to invoke someone’s medical history the same way that people might invoke a rap sheet, especially when it’s not made clear how that history is relevant to the tragedy. According to a recent Harvard study, about 50% of the world’s population will experience mental illness during their lifetimes, which means that almost half of the people we know will have a “history of mental illness” by the time they reach old age.

Other news outlets mention that Card had been making threats of killing people for several months. This is the most important element in the story, but is being downplayed in reporting that has come out so far. If Card had been making threats for several months, why was he not under law enforcement surveillance? Muslims and Black activists are put on watch lists for much less. When someone is making violent threats, that should provide an immediate opening for intervention. (It should also be noted here that Card was reportedly hospitalized over the summer, which confirms something I’ve mentioned before, which is that psychiatry is not the appropriate tool for preventing violence, which has been endemic in all of American history.) The real systemic failures to act on any red flags here — which are NOT military service or mental illness — was that the person had been making explicit threats for months and was still allowed to obtain a firearm. Because the media needs access to law enforcement, however, they don’t report as critically as they should on these systemic failures, which is one of many reasons that “mental health” gets scapegoated instead.

Source: CBS News

Catherine Ho | San Francisco Chronicle | October 24, 2023

An Alaska Airlines plane.
Image description: An Alaska Airlines plane.

The article: Alaska Air pilot ‘breakdown’ spotlights mental health of aviators: ‘People do anything to hide it’

Why it’s a problem: This article is a perfect example of a tactic called “framing” in mass communication studies. Framing is about the way the media spotlight particular issues when covering a story and how that influences the public’s interpretation of events. If you think of a photographer composing a shot, what elements does the photographer include in the frame and what gets excluded? In San Francisco Chronicle’s coverage of the recent Alaska Air incident, the author frames the story as one about the pilot’s depression despite acknowledging that up to 13% of pilots experience depression, and while ignoring the fact that the pilot took psychedelic mushrooms just 48 hours prior to the flight. It’s also not clear yet that the pilot’s intent was to bring down the plane.

The author makes depression do a lot of heavy lifting in this article, and it relies on the reader’s biases to make the logical leap from “the pilot was depressed” to “the pilot tried to murder people.” This narrative device is what Margaret Price calls juxtaposition — “the placing of pieces of information side by side” such that the omitted parts compel the reader “to draw on existing stereotypic knowledge to explain the behaviour and, in so doing, to confirm the relevance and adequacy of that knowledge.”

Source: The San Francisco Chronicle

Philippa Perry | The Guardian | October 22, 2023

A woman consoling an elderly person.
Image description: A woman consoling an elderly person.

The article: My mum’s depression drags me down. I feel I need to stay away

Why it’s a problem: This letter to an advice columnist in The Guardian continues a long history in the West of decentering the voices of disabled people in favor of the family members who complain of the burden of living with them. In this letter, the author implies that her mother’s depression causes her to be “hateful towards everyone” so that she “tries to turn everyone against each other and has frequent tantrums.” The mother may very well benefit from therapy, but it’s very inappropriate to attribute all these behaviors to depression, or to imply that treating depression will cure all of their relationship problems. This contributes to the ableist practice of attributing all bad behaviors to someone’s disability.

Even worse, these attitudes about mental illness as the root of all evil contribute to a harmful culture of toxic positivity that is taking over all aspects of our lives. I often think about a documentary I watched a few years ago on the infamous real estate company, WeWork, which had a Happiness Clause in their employees’ contracts. In one case, documented in the film, an employee/whistleblower exposed deep problems in the company’s finances on a blog, upon which the employee was fired based on violating the Happiness Clause.

Increasingly, there is a mindset in American life that “YOU MUST BE HAPPY or else you are a danger to the community!” People who are unhappy about the grotesque levels of income inequality in America, the forever wars, climate change, anthropogenic mass extinction, or people who are struggling because of these crises, or people who are struggling without financial or physical security, or people who have been abused or sexually harassed, are often told that they are mentally ill.

Source: The Guardian

Emily Hoeven | The San Francisco Chronicle | October 21, 2023

Image description: The AA Bakery & Cafe in San Francisco’s Chinatown.

The article: A Chinatown worker was stabbed in the neck. Her alleged attacker was ‘dumped’ on S.F. from a mental hospital

Why it’s a problem: This atrocious op-ed is what happens when political elites in cities like San Francisco attempt to justify and double down on bad policies that offer only one type of solution to problems they created in order to displace and incarcerate people. The author asserts that “[the perpetrator’s] severe mental illness — from which he was still suffering — played a role in his violent crime and made him a danger to the public” despite acknowledging that experts determined, just a week before the crime, that he “no longer met all of the six criteria necessary to be classified as an Offender with a Mental Health Disorder.” The author asserts that mental illness was to blame, despite cataloging a laundry list of failures by the state to provide safe housing and follow-up care. We can conclude that mental illness is not really to blame, but rather the individual, and the people and institutions around him that failed to provide for his needs.

The specious idea that mental illness causes people to commit violence falls apart under analysis, yet persists because it’s a convenient argument that people use to evade accountability. As the Yale psychiatrist and historian, Marco Ramos, has noted, “There is no evidence that psychiatrists have the magic power to stop people from committing violence.” Except in very rare cases, mental illness is not a biological entity like the rabies virus that infects people’s brains and changes their behaviors. It’s astounding how many people still talk about mental illness in this way. The fact, acknowledged in the article, that the vast majority of people with “severe mental illness” are not violent, reveals the illogic of statements like “mental illness caused so-and-so to do this.” If we take this illogic to its conclusion, it leads to the extreme fallacy that all violence (including all racism, all misogyny, all bad behavior) must be a symptom of mental illness. When people make these kinds of statements, they are being deliberately obtuse. It’s an attempt to avoid accountability and sow fear — notice how the author exploits the incident to demand “strong and swift action” — and to obscure the fact that cities like San Francisco offer only carceral solutions (including psychiatric coercion and incapacitation) to people whose basic needs aren’t being met, which is the main driver of violence in the city.

Even the alternative but equally ableist statement that “mental illness is a risk factor for violence” is incorrect, because it flips the causation around. What we define as mental illness is just a cluster of symptoms, so it would be more correct to say that when people are exhibiting mental illness, they are indicating that they are in distress. In fact, the key feature of mental illness is that the person is experiencing some level of distress related to their symptoms. If a person is hallucinating, but not bothered by their hallucinations, they shouldn’t be labeled mentally ill unless that is how they identify. Statements such as “mental illness is a risk factor for violence” are actually political statements that serve to victim blame instead of acknowledging how we as communities, as families, as partners, and individuals are often the cause of other people’s distress. How people respond to distress is infinitely variable. Obviously, some people in distress choose violence, but many people don’t. In any case, when people’s needs aren’t being met (which may include psychiatric care for some people), that is a harm that has occurred, and that’s where our focus for change needs to be.

Additional comment: I also don’t like how the author, a white person, is exploiting Asian trauma. The only time marginalized people matter to the media is when our pain can be instrumentalized for politics.

Source: The San Francisco Chronicle

Katherine Kam | The Washington Post | October 19, 2023

Graphic of a businessman struggling with self doubt and confusion.
Image description: Graphic of a businessman struggling with self doubt and confusion.

The article: Overtalking may signal a mental health condition

Why it’s a problem: We should absolutely support people who want help changing behaviors that may be causing challenges in their lives, but the idea that “your bad behavior is rooted in X diagnosis” is itself rooted in ableism and a pathologizing mindset. This article in The Washington Post contains a lot of pathologizing language, such as describing autism as a “mental condition.” (It’s not. It’s actually a neurotype, though autism is considered a developmental disorder by people who view us through a medicalized lens). Although there is some good advice in this article, such as “allowing an autistic person to decide whether ‘overtalking’ is actually an issue for [them],” it’s unfortunate that the author doesn’t allow the same agency for people who live with bipolar disorder, which is also a form of neurodivergence, and instead suggests that overtalking may be a sign of mental illness.

These “warning sign” articles fascinate me, if only because the media often indicates little to no self-awareness regarding its long and problematic history covering mental health issues. To take a different behavior as an example, last year during the Elizabeth Holmes trial, everyone in the media was talking about how her deep voice was a sign of her criminal mind. Yet recently I listened to an interview on NPR during which the host gushed about the actor Christine Baranski, who assiduously cultivated the sophisticated image that she has become known for by deliberately deepening her voice at the start of her career. One may argue that Baranski is a performer, and that actors are always experimenting with different voices. However, Baranski always uses her deep voice in public, both on and off the stage. Famous non-actors have also changed their voices to further their careers. For example, if you watch early Khan Academy videos, it’s very easy to deduce that Salman Khan has worked on deepening his voice. So, it’s frustrating how the same behavior can be viewed as pathology depending on the person who is being judged. Because people already disliked Elizabeth Holmes, there was a strong bias to interpret her voice change in a negative light, as a sign of a manipulative con artist. And ultimately, this is why no matter how many times we are told by “the experts” that their lists of signs and symptoms are dependent on context, in practice they are very much dependent on people’s motivations in relation to the person being judged.

Source: The Washington Post

Maiken Scott and Liz Tung | NPR The Pulse | October 13, 2023

Business concept illustration of businessman wearing smiling face mask.
Image description: Business concept illustration of businessman wearing smiling face mask.

The article: Shame and Blame: How Stigma Impacts Health

Why it’s a problem: This NPR piece starts with a poignant segment on Patient O, the individual who was initially accused of spreading AIDS in North America during the early years of the AIDS epidemic. However, the closing segment is almost absurd as the authors interview a man who identifies as a psychopath, aka someone who lives with antisocial personality disorder. Psychopathy is a strange choice of identity to do a segment on stigma for a number of reasons. Firstly, the interviewee has done some pretty horrible things in his life, which he attributes to his psychopathy. Secondly, although psychopaths can certainly experience discrimination, it’s arguable whether they are a stigmatized group given that they are overly represented in places of power, including politics, finance, and law enforcement. As James H. Fallon, a neuroscientist at the University of California Irvine, and a self-declared psychopath, describes in his book, The Psychopath Inside, psychopaths often possess traits that are highly valued in American culture, especially in competitive and high pressure fields like medicine. It’s curious that the authors chose not to interview someone with borderline personality disorder instead, which is very stigmatized, especially in women. It’s reasonable to assume that the authors went with the most sensational, clickbaity angle.

Source: NPR

Em Nguyen, Allie Weintraub, and Patty See | ABC News | October 12, 2023

Military father kissing son with disability on return home.
Image description: Military father kissing son with disability on return home.

The article: Nonprofit seeks insight from devices left behind by veterans who died by suicide

Why it’s a problem: This article expands on the criminalization of suicide by suggesting that forensics can help to “decode” suicidal veterans’ behaviors by analyzing the tech devices left behind by veterans who have died by suicide. However, the suggestion that suicidality is a Black Box is actually a form of gaslighting meant to make suicidal individuals seem perplexing, unpredictable, and dangerous, and meant to remove accountability for the people and institutions that contribute to suicidal people’s despair. For example, it’s not a secret that the military chews up young people and spits them out, but support services for veterans, especially through the VA, are abysmal. There is also often an obstinate unwillingness by people to acknowledge suicidal people’s needs, even though they express their needs in myriad ways. Furthermore, there is a legitimate fear among suicidal people that disclosing suicidal thoughts will lead to being criminalized, punished, or killed by police. In fact, this article tries especially hard to justify the murder of a suicidal veteran who was killed by police, stating that “the death was determined to be a suicide” and “the officers’ actions were justified.” Of course, but no.

Source: ABC News

Kristen Rogers | CNN | October 10, 2023

Long term patient with special treatment care plan is looking out the window.
Image description: Long term patient with special treatment care plan is looking out the window.

The article: When talking about suicide, avoid using these words

Why it’s a problem: There is a lot of good advice in this article from CNN, namely that we need to stop criminalizing suicidal people, and part of that effort will come from being more thoughtful about the language we use when talking about suicide. But it’s unfortunate then, that the following sentence made it into the article: “Stigmatizing language about suicide can also cement ideas that people who attempted or died by suicide, when compared with everyone else, are broken, disabled, less than or different in some way, experts said.” I come across these kinds of statements a lot: “Not all suicidal people are crazy;” or “Not all homeless people are mentally ill.” As if disability and mental illness are the absolute worst things. Destigmatization is not a zero sum game, and we don’t need to stigmatize one group in order to destigmatize another.

Source: CNN

Alissa Escarce | NPR | October 9, 2023

Photo of mother and son in the early 1990s.
Image description: Photo of mother and son in the early 1990s.

The article: Everyone in the park knew him. It was only after he died that his story came to light

Why it’s a problem: On the surface, this NPR piece, part of a new series called “The Unmarked Grave,” seems like a sympathetic and “humanizing” portrait of Neil Harris Jr, an unhoused person with apparent mental illness who died in 2017. However, the story, written in True Crime fashion, is actually more about centering the people whose lives were peripheral to Neil’s, and continues a long tradition of harmful media coverage of marginalized people that “gives voice” only after they die. I use the term “giving voice” here loosely since, as Arundhati Roy has famously observed, “There’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless.’ There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.”

Source: NPR