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.

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