The “journalists’ bible” announced March 7 that it is adding a section providing guidance to reporters when describing mental illness. “It is the right time to address how journalists handle questions of mental illness in coverage,” AP Senior Vice President and Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll said in a news release. “This isn’t only a question of which words one uses to describe a person’s illness. There are important journalistic questions, too.”
The guidance largely reflects the movement toward “people-first language,” which advocates identifying people as people, as opposed to by their disability.
The entry advocates that reporters stop describing individuals as “mentally ill,” unless it is “clearly pertinent to a story and the diagnosis is properly sourced.” Derogatory terms such as “crazy” and “deranged” are discouraged, as well as descriptions that connote pity such as “afflicted with, suffers from or victim of.”
Along with the guidance on terminology, the entry encourages reporters to make additional efforts to gather necessary information about mental illnesses, as opposed to relying on stereotypes or false assumptions.
“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,” the new entry states. “Specify the time frame for the diagnosis and ask about treatment. A person’s condition can change over time, so a diagnosis of mental illness might not apply anymore.
“Avoid anonymous sources. On-the-record sources can be family members, mental health professionals, medical authorities, law enforcement officials and court records. Be sure they have accurate information to make the diagnosis. Provide examples of symptoms.”
The Sandy Hook Massacre, the AP acknowledged, was a factor in the push for the entry. Similar to the aftermath of other recent shooting, the descriptions of the shooter, Adam Lanza, were full of speculative and misleading accounts regarding the link between mental illness and violent crime.
“Newtown was certainly among the reasons we considered this carefully, as well as the run of other mass shootings where the state of the shooter was an issue. Editors heard from and sounded out mental health experts and welcomed their input,” AP spokesperson Paul Colford told Poynter.
The entry is already available on AP Style Online and will be available in next print addition as well, which is regularly published in spring.