Discriminating Times? A re-survey of New Zealand print media reporting on mental health

Discriminating Times? A re-Survey of New Zealand p…
01 Jun 2005

In 2000, the Mental Health Commission published a report following a systematic survey of 1997-98 newspaper clippings “to analyse and describe how the newsprint media (re) presents people with mental illness to their readers, to identify blind spots and shining lights” and “to identify ways to improve the presentation of people with mental illness”. In 2005, the Mental Health Commission repeated this systematic survey against 2004 newspaper clippings and compared findings. This report outlines the methods used and the findings of changes on media-reporting since the 2000 report.


The 1997/98 and 2004 surveys

The Discrimination Times involved a three-month review of all print media clippings on mental health collected by Chongs Clipping Service, from 1 – 15 September, October and November during 1997 and 1998. This yielded 805 articles. All articles were classified into four categories – columnists (regular writers), features, letters and news and were then scored according to the process outlined below.

This study is a comparative one, using the same method of the previous study, although on a smaller scale. Clippings from Chongs were collected from 1 to 15 January, February and March 2004, and yielded 153 clippings from 51 newspapers and magazines around New Zealand.

There were several reasons for the smaller number of clippings available for this survey. First, the survey covered one, rather than two three-month periods. Second, there were fewer repeat articles in the sample (in the first survey 25% of articles were repeats of, for example, news stories sourced from NZPA, compared with 13% in the second survey). It is possible that a few repeat stories from the clipping service were not kept and therefore were not available to be included in our sample.

Third, the first survey included Mental Health Awareness Week in both years. Mental Health Awareness Week is a major international event and it resulted in 86 clippings (nearly 11% of the total) in the earlier survey. Another reason for fewer articles dealing with mental health in the current survey was that our sampling period, from January to March, included the holiday period, which may have meant a period of lower media activity overall.

In making overall comparisons between the two surveys (see Figure 1 and accompanying text below), we decided that these would be more meaningful if we excluded Mental Health Awareness Week clippings. All other comparisons reported in this paper contain data including Mental Health Awareness Week clippings. We made no adjustment for the smaller number of repeat items (in the previous study repeat items had more negative ratings).

Scoring procedures

All the clippings were rated either positive (+1), neutral (0) or negative (-1) in three different areas: subject matter, treatment and headline. The key question asked in relation to each article was ‘How does the subject matter, treatment or headline potentially affect the reader’s perception of people with mental illness?’

Subject Matter refers to the topic or content of the clipping. For example, an article about service users as useful members of their community or relaying a personal story of recovery, would receive a score of +1, and an article associating crime and mental illness would receive a score of -1.

Treatment included the presentation of the material, for example, choice of a photo and/or any emphasis in the text. In determining the score for treatment, questions such as those below were asked:

  • How did the writer present people with a mental illness?
  • Was the language appropriate?
  • Did the reader get a balanced view of the issues?
  • Is the selection of material (eg, who is quoted) fair?

For example, an article that used discriminatory language or presented only one clearly negative viewpoint without seeking alternative views would receive a score of –1. eg, “The insane and mad are being let loose to live in your community.”

Headline score was determined after considering the following question, ‘How would just the headline alone effect the reader’s view of people with a mental illness?’ For example an article whose headline appeared to have little effect on people’s perceptions of people with mental illness received a score of ‘0’, eg, ‘New programme for hospital’.

The articles were originally rated by the project’s researcher after a briefing from Mental Health Commission staff and the lead researcher from the previous study. The scores of 30 articles were also subjected to a peer review with three people with experience in the field of the representation of people with mental illnesses.

In addition, clippings in both studies were also assessed for their potential as protest-worthy or praiseworthy. Protest-worthy clippings were those that merited a vigorous complaint for misleading, discriminatory, and prejudicial journalism. Conversely, praiseworthy clippings were those that merited a ‘congratulations on publishing’ letter to the editor.

Key Results

Compared with The Discrimination Times, this survey found that there was a significant improvement in the way people with experience of mental illness were represented by the print media.

A large drop in the number of clippings with a mental health theme: There was a 62% decrease in the number of articles which had a mental health theme compared with the first study, even taking the shorter time period of the second study into account. The fact that there were fewer clippings overall is most likely related to our finding of proportionally fewer negative clippings, with less focus on crime and violence.

Fewer clippings portraying mental health negatively and more with a positive approach: Proportionally, there was a consistent decrease in negative reporting, and an increase in positive reporting. There were less discriminatory headlines, mental health was dealt with more fairly, more accurate information was provided, service user comments were included more often, and more sensitive language was used. There were more praiseworthy articles and few protest-worthy ones.

A notable increase in the number of positive personal stories: The proportion of positive personal stories carried by the media increased from 5.7% to 11.1%, despite the inclusion of the period of Mental Health Awareness Week in the first study, which tends to lend itself to the publication of positive personal stories.

Improved reporting on crime and violence: There was a slight drop in the proportion of stories associating crime or violence with mental illness, but the way this material was presented improved considerably.

Major daily newspapers showed improve-ments, while weekly and smaller newspapers showed more negative reporting: Major daily newspapers such as The Dominion Post, The New Zealand Herald or The Press represented people with experience of mental illness more positively than they had in the previous study, while smaller weekly and metropolitan newspapers did less well than previously.

In interpreting these findings it is important to note that there are ebbs and flows in the media in relation to particular topics, and that even one major event and its consequences can have an impact on clippings over a survey period. For this reason, it is best that these results be read in the context of the ever-changing world of media reporting.

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