Whose Planet Is It Anyway?

Friday, August 10, 2007

Journalistic Bias Syndrome

The Columbine Syndrome, a recent New York Times article by Judith Warner, addresses the prejudices shown by journalists and others in our society toward people with neurological differences. Not long ago, a news report on a particularly heinous rape-murder case gratuitously mentioned that the perpetrator had been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, dyslexia, and dysgraphia; Warner characterizes this reporting as "a sinister detail that piled on a broad insult to all the gruesome injuries, victimizing a whole new set of people."

Indeed, when neurological differences and psychological diagnoses are mentioned frequently in the context of criminal offenses, such reporting skews the general public's perceptions and leads many people to assume that there must be a causal relationship. Warner cites studies showing how widespread these prejudices have become:

This past May, the journal Psychiatric Services published the results of the first large-scale nationally representative survey of public attitudes about children's mental health. Eighty-one percent of respondents said they thought children with major depression would be dangerous to themselves or others; 33 percent said they believed children with A.D.H.D. were likely to be dangerous...

...Another study released in March found about one in five parents saying they would not want children with A.D.H.D. or depression as their neighbors, in their child's classroom or as their child's friends.

It's deeply ironic that at a time when more than ever is known about children's mental health needs and more methods than ever exist to help kids with behavioral or emotional issues, the stigma attached to those problems won't budge. Instead, our brave new world of diagnosis and treatment has spurred new kinds of myth-making and prejudice.

Warner is quite right that, every time we get a new label to describe cognitive and behavioral differences, we just end up with a new prejudice. This is where we are today with the medicalization of human diversity: if a few psychologists get together and decide to call something a disorder, that instantly makes the most revolting bigotry OK in many people's minds. The concept of the autism spectrum has only been in the clinical parlance since 1994, but we have politicians like Hillary Clinton who see nothing wrong with the idea of wiping out the entire spectrum through eugenic abortion, just because of the label. Makes me wonder—how quick would Hillary change her tune if the psychs invented Pandering Syndrome and diagnosed her with it?

Then again, habitual pandering already fits into the criteria for sociopathy. Not that you'll ever see anyone with money and clout getting that diagnosis. That's all right, though, because sociopaths deserve equal rights and recognition of their ability to contribute to society, too. Just think, if the whole sociopath spectrum got wiped out tomorrow, we'd have a major shortage of politicians, CEOs, and lobbyists. I have the utmost respect for Hillary's neurodiversity. But I digress.

About a hundred years ago, when a murder or other serious crime was committed in the United States, most newspapers would gleefully report that the suspect was an immigrant, or a Jew, or a Catholic, or a "Negro," or anything other than the native-born white Protestant face of "normal" America.

Eventually, things changed for the better. Publishers implemented rules for non-biased reporting that instructed journalists not to mention race, religion, or other personal characteristics that were irrelevant to the story. That went a long way toward reducing society's prejudices against minority groups.

Nowadays, people who have been diagnosed with so-called mental disorders are fair game in many journalists' minds. Just as ethnic and religious minorities were stereotyped as having a natural inclination toward criminal behavior a century ago, neurological minorities have to contend with the same sort of ignorant attitudes today.

If you're interested in contributing to a worthy initiative to reduce such bigotry, you may want to consider donating to the Carter Center, as I do. In addition to the Center's better-known activities of monitoring elections and funding public health efforts in emerging democracies, it is also the home of the Rosalynn Carter Fellowships for Mental Health Journalism, a program that teaches journalists how they can improve the public's understanding of mental health issues and play a critical role in reducing stigma and discrimination.

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  • About a hundred years ago, when a murder or other serious crime was committed in the United States, most newspapers would gleefully report that the suspect was an immigrant, or a Jew, or a Catholic, or a "Negro," or anything other than the native-born white Protestant face of "normal" America.

    A hundred years ago? Isn't that pretty much the norm to this day, at least as far as race is concerned?

    But yeah, that kind of reporting gives a group "assumed characteristics" and when someone makes an assumption about the characteristics or capabilities of an individual based only on group membership, discrimination has taken place.

    By Blogger Joseph, at 8:59 PM  

  • This is typical, media always needs a scapegoat. It figures that media uses people neurodifferances as that scapegoat

    By Anonymous Noranne Kramer, at 9:28 PM  

  • 'Deeply ironic' indeed.
    Best wishes

    By Anonymous mcewen, at 12:12 AM  

  • Although news stories still mention race in descriptions of wanted criminals, I don't think that reflects a bigoted attitude because they describe wanted white guys, too.

    Yes, it would be better if they dropped the racial language altogether and just wrote that a suspect had a light complexion or a dark complexion, rather than describing him as white or black.

    Still, I don't think that's at all comparable to what was going on a hundred years ago, when many publishers and reporters were members of the Ku Klux Klan, and newspapers had headlines like "A Good Time Had by All as Negro Lynched."

    By Blogger abfh, at 9:56 AM  

  • Interesting point about how our increasingly refined knowledge (and "knowledge") about neuropsychological issues isn't helping to reduce prejudice. Cyncially, I would say that knowledge and prejudice are being used hand-in-hand to feed the money machine. The more "conditions" are identified, and the "worse" these conditions are, the better for hawking "cures."

    If they kept the knowledge but eliminated the prejudice, then people would not see the point of promoting cures; they would simply try to solve the problems dynamically and situationally. Not so much easy money to be made in that. The fantasy of a quick cure is probably more compelling to most people than the fantasy of slowly sharpening the mind and widening the heart by really considering the significance of the fact that not everyone thinks and perceives like you do.

    If they kept the prejudice but eliminated the knowledge (i.e., took some categories out of recognition or visibility), then there would be fewer people who would fit the "abnormal" criteria and thus a smaller market for the cures.

    So the quick-buck-makers would naturally have an interest in preserving and advancing both simultaneously. No contradiction.

    The only problem is that this widening of the market for cures to insecurities by promoting insecurities is, well, making people insecure. Neither the strengths of the neurotypical nor the neurodifferent are being properly developed. We neurotypicals are being discouraged from thinking outside an ever-shrinking box and looking for dynamic solutions to relating to the people around us who think and perceive differently than we do, and the neurodiverse are getting more air time for their weaknesses than their strengths and being encouraged to focus more on the former.

    By Blogger reform_normal, at 3:14 AM  

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