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Reporting on Mental Illness

by on October 17, 2016

Earlier in the year, Sinéad O’Connor was reported missing in, Chicago, the town she currently resides in. Billboard and Pitchfork were the three outlets I was following the story on at the time, both getting a lot of information from TMZ (sadly). In Billboard’s coverage, they acknowledged her listing as missing and suicidal after not returning from her bike ride. They then went into the context of why she was labeled this way with her recent history of emotional struggles including the cutting of ties with her family after an apparent overdose.

A month later, she went missing again. This time the story (originally from TMZ once again) was that she called her family and told them she was going to jump off a bridge in Chicago. She was found and then the next stories to roll out cited her calling the claims “bullshit” in a Facebook post.

All three of these outlets handled the situation in different ways. TMZ went for the throat I’ll say, as they always do. They brought up every instance of her being unwell that they could, and in their final update of the original situation, included that she was taken to a hospital. The second time around they released police scanner audio alongside a perturbed picture of the singer. The headline read “Sinéad O’Connor: suicide watch on Chicago Bridges,” already sensationalizing it. They even ended it with a tongue-in-cheek acknowledgment of her previous disappearance saying “she’s been struggling with depression lately.”

Billboard handled it quite sympathetically in comparison, but as previously said they included a lot of the very personal context of her mental health into the story.

Pitchfork, left many of these details out. They simply reported the facts and motions of the story, updating frequently and striking old information. They didn’t include any context for the behavior, but have in the past reported on her illness and off key actions which she is usually very open about.

It’s troublesome because these three ways of reporting it do have some good and bad in them. TMZ was bad by disclosing unnecessary things such as her going to the hospital. It can be argued that no one needs to know that, just simply that she’s safe. They were harsh in other ways as well, but that detail is important because it is a detail. Some might feel that it is important to include that she was getting treatment immediately after the incident.

Billboard, didn’t include the harsher details, but the context helps the reader know that she has been showing a lot of erratic behavior and this isn’t just a freak story. In doing so, it brings up a lot of dark information from the singer’s past, that while she is open about these things, may not be necessary when it could simply be said that she has been seeing treatment for her illness.

Pitchfork avoided any offensive or touchy subjects in their reporting which is definitely respectful of O’Connor, but also respectful to those that are adamant about confidentiality when it comes to mental health. Once again though, she puts much of this information out in the open so it isn’t confidential to begin with. For some, maybe this would really help them to get the picture that this isn’t a simple case of a depressed person and that she is having a serious struggle. But, that’s also not sure to be true and might bring misleading conclusions if this is all unnecessary and untrue as she claims.

Personally, I would take a much different approach that kind of combines all three. The base would Pitchfork’s reporting which was respectfully sparse, but Billboard included a paragraph laying out the stress of her mis-diagnosis and the state of her PTSD which includes suicidal tendencies. It’s quite personal, but it’s not to the level of listing out her actions, and it gets straight to what needs to be said about this. I would also probably include the hospital bit, because it shows that the issue was serious enough for her to be taken to a hospital despite her Facebook post afterwards. It would have the conversation left open on terms of what really happened, but it wouldn’t have so much embarrassing information stacked against her suggesting that she is totally out of control.

Is that right though? In reporting on mental illness in general, it’s always best to be respectful, but would it be more respectful to list out whatever they are comfortable with being open about in order to tell their story?


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One Comment
  1. I think often when reporting on issues surrounding mental health there is often a lack of understanding due to a lack of discourse surrounding this topic to begin with. This has been a major critique people have had with coverage surrounding mass shootings as well. (See NYT article: Don’t Blame Mental Illness for Gun Violence). The innate human desire to know “why” is a major factor, I think, that contributes to the need to blame the abnormal or deviant behaviors of others on a mental illness, sometimes with as a mentioned a lack of understanding but also sensitivity.

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