Home > Uncategorized > Journalists quick to label mentally ill with catch phrases

Journalists quick to label mentally ill with catch phrases


Many times when you ask people who they are, the first thing they usually tell you is their occupation. “I’m an INSERT JOB” seems to be the popular choice. These days it seems that if you’re not a prestigious somebody, you’re either boring or under-appreciated.  After all, who introduces themselves as disabled, in love or jobless? So why do we label people in journalism?

As language evolves, the style in which journalists write follows suit, usually. Many times journalists find themselves ahead of that language curve. It’s not always about being right. Many times, the words we use to describe people in news are driven by the idea of being politically correct.

The recent decision by the Associated Press to abandon the term “illegal immigrant” was controversial. On one side you have advocates for losing the term, calling it dehumanizing. On the other, you have those who don’t understand any other way to identify a group of people who enter a country illegally.

Journalism has developed a pattern when reporting tragedies. When James Holmes entered a Colorado theater and opened fire the media transformed him. No longer was he just a troubled college student, the media began referring to him as the Aurora Shooter and the Batman Shooter. He became a label and his actual name seemed to become a secondary reference.

When does a person’s mental condition become overshadowed by a catch phrase? Why call a person a gunman or shooter? They become the bad crazy person, who is evil. It may be because we remember a person by their actions more than their names. People seem to understand tragedy if they can separate themselves from the ugliness.

Aaron Alexis shown smiling, sheds light on a different side of a man who had a history of anger and who committed violent acts on a Navel base. Photo by Handout via AP

Aaron Alexis shown smiling, sheds light on a different side of a man who had a history of anger and who committed violent acts on a Navel base. Photo by Handout via AP

Eric Harris is another example.

Is there an issue with humanizing a person who does a terrible thing? Sometimes the media has a tendency to vilify people who do terrible things as a way to keep a distance.  In a way it helps to perpetuate an idea that normal people aren’t capable of horrible acts, when we are all capable.

When we discover that a person is mentally ill, many times we read and watch the media call people crazed and disturbed. In actuality, they may be sick. But because it is not considered a physical sickness, we find it easier to label.

Labels give us an instant sense of justice and allow every viewer, reader and listener to be his or her own judge and jury. People talk, opinions fly and the media have higher ratings and a best seller. After which any news related to the event becomes breaking news.

In spring of this year, The Associated Press revised their Stylebook and added the term Mental Illness. The definition reads:

mental illness – Do not describe an individual as mentally ill unless it is clearly pertinent to a story and the diagnosis is properly sourced. Do 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. Mental illness is a general condition. Specific disorders are types of mental illness and should be used whenever possible: He was diagnosed with schizophrenia, according to court documents. She was diagnosed with anorexia, according to her parents. He was treated for depression.”

Perhaps journalism has gotten to a point where we can get rid of derogatory terms and report on just the facts.

If you didn’t know who Eric Harris is, look up a shooting in Columbine, Colo.

_ Alexander Hall

Categories: Uncategorized
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