Tag Archives: Language

Requiring more of journalists may help destigmatize mental illness

JournalistIn early March the Associated Press released new standards for reporters and editors regarding metal illness. To comply, we’re asked to only include mental health details if they’re relevant to the story and come as a specific diagnosis from an attributed source.

Over one in four adults have a diagnosable mental illness in the United States, according to the National Institute of Mental Illness. Within that large portion of our population each individual experiences their condition differently.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness issued a statement calling the new standards, “a seismic shift in the terrain of popular culture.”

In the statement, Bob Carolla, NAMI Director of Media Relations, says, “For years, NAMI has worked to have the news media abandon inaccurate, careless, or stigmatizing language or practices in reporting on mental illness.”

A lot of that stigmatizing language emerged in the debate around weapons access after the tragic shootings in Aurora, Colorado and Newtown, Colorado. I’m thinking specifically of rock n’ roller Ted Nugent’s commentary published in The Washington Times: “Nut control, not gun control: Failure to deal with mental illness leads to massacres.”

The AP standards do not pertain to statements from individuals and organizations, but it will hold a large group of information producers and disseminators – the news media – responsible for their language.

The guide clarifies: “Mental illness is a general condition. Specific disorders are types of mental illness and should be used whenever possible.”

It cautions journalists away from making assumptions or interpretations about subject’s mental health and from drawing connections between crimes and mental health concerns.

“Do not assume that mental illness is a factor in a violent crime, and verify statements to that effect. A past history of mental illness is not necessarily a reliable indicator. Studies have shown that the vast majority of people with mental illness are not violent, and experts say most people who are violent do not suffer from mental illness,” state the guidelines.

Terms such as “deranged” or “crazy” are classified as “derogatory” in the guide, and writers are cautioned against referring to folks as “victims of” or “suffering from” their disorders.

You can read the guide here, and I recommend that you do. It discourages the sensationalizing of mental illness that often arises around violent crime, and encourages reporters to be deliberate when referencing folks’ mental health. The way that we characterize issues in the media impacts the tone of national conversations and the individuals they characterize.

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Black Women in American Culture and History: Mary Church Terrell

In 1906 Mary Church Terrell pointed out that Washington DC, the center of American liberty, failed to live up to its reputation as “The Colored Man’s Paradise.” During her speech to the United Women’s Club in DC, Terrell tore apart the slogan. She proved it a misnomer with anecdotes of segregation and discrimination against African-Americans.

At the time, DC was a difficult place for traveling African Americans to find room and board. It was difficult for African Americans to find a place on a tram, in a church, or at the theater. In her speech, Terrell described the loss of job experienced by many of her very qualified friends and acquaintances:

“A colored woman, as fair as a lily and as beautiful as a Madonna, who was the head saleswoman in a large department store in New York, had been discharged, after she had held this position for years, when the proprietor accidentally discovered that a fatal drop of African blood was percolating somewhere thru her veins.”

One hundred and six years after Terrell told that story, we can appreciate that “a drop of African blood,” is no longer “fatal.” Washington DC, though never a paradise for any man, does host the first African American first family. And this month, we look back at the achievements of and the difficulties surmounted by African Americans. This year in particular African American History Month celebrates the theme, “Black Women in American Culture and History.”

Terrell lived from 1863 to 1954 and was well educated, well traveled, and wealthy. Her parents were slaves before her father became a millionaire.  She spoke professionally on behalf of women and African Americans, and against lynching and disenfranchisement.

She ended her 1906 speech, “What it means to be colored in the Capital of the United States,” with a lament that treatment of African Americans in DC (and elsewhere) leads to “helplessness and hopelessness” and a loss of “incentive and effort” that even sympathetic white people couldn’t appreciate. But the irony she saw in the capital shone through her last remark:

“And surely nowhere in the world do oppression and persecution based solely on the color of the skin appear more hateful and hideous than in the capital of the United States, because the chasm between the principles upon which this Government was founded, in which it still professes to believe, and those which are daily practiced under the protection of the flag, yawns so wide and deep.”

Along similar lines, an exhibit on “The Paradox of Liberty” will explore Thomas Jefferson and his conflicting positions on liberty and slavery. Check it out online or in DC. The exhibit is presented by the forthcoming Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture and Monticello.

Source: Man Cannot Speak for Her, Volume II, Compiled by Karlyn Kohrs Campbell

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Language, Race, and Provocation: The Evolution of SlutWalk in a Timeline

SlutWalk’s provocative title garnered  attention and support for the series of marches against sexual assault and victim blaming. But mainstream and feminist commentators criticized the organizer’s preoccupation with the term “slut.” The movement sought to end slut shaming and reclamation of “slut” featured in the mission statements of various SlutWalk marches. Each march rose separately from the grassroots level, and they generally included speakers, signs, and some scantily clad participants.

I created this timeline to accompany a research paper on rhetorical and racial hang-ups presented through the SlutWalk movement. In my research I examined the discourse around and criticism towards SlutWalk regarding reclamation of the term “Slut” and the N-word as it was presented on an NYC SlutWalk sign. I also explored the racial dynamic of the event and how the choice of the term “Slut” both raised awareness of the marches and alienated women of color.

This timeline shows the progression of these language and race issues as they arose throughout the year. Many other events took place under the umbrella of SlutWalk, which I did not include here.


The Star | Toronto Sun | The Washington Post | Time Magazine | The New York Post | Ms. Magazine | Ms. Blog | The Guardian | To The Curb Blog | The Crunk Feminist Collective Blog | Black Women’s Blueprint Website | SlutWalk NYC Website

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