Tag Archives: Reporting

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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Adult Witnesses of Child Abuse Held Accountable

On my parents anniversary a few weeks ago they reminisced about trying to secure a particular Catholic officiate at their wedding.  But the priest they selected was not permitted by his superiors to oversee a half-Catholic wedding, and besides, Ron Voss was already in trouble in the diocese for violating traditional practices like hosting mass in someone’s house.

The irony of the story, my parents continued, was that this priest’s most offensive act did not face sufficient punishment from the church. He molested children, and the church’s solution to the problem was to send him far away, to Haiti, where conflicting reports suggest Voss continued his abusive habits.

This anecdote from my parents revived an issue I’ve been mulling over since the Jerry Sandusky trial this summer. Protecting children from predators should be the understood responsibility of all adults. Standing by with knowledge of child abuse condones the crime and is criminal in and of itself. Within the unequal power dynamic of an abusive relationship, children cannot be expected to protect themselves from older, larger, and more influential figures in their lives who may try to hurt them.

The UN’s Universal Declaration of the Rights of the Child (this is a human rights document) states that “The child shall be protected against all forms of neglect, cruelty and exploitation.” While the US helped draft this declaration we have not ratified it and are not held to the terms. But many states on their own, have passed legislation naming mandatory reporters who monitor for suspicious treatment of children. Florida just passed an act that “criminalizes failure to report child abuse” in the state.

Reporting charges of child abuse can be painful to pursue. I don’t doubt this. No institution — be it the Roman Catholic Church, the legendary football program at Penn State, or any other establishment — wants to set aside their mission and reputation to deal with a scandal. And no individual witness likely wants to challenge people they’ve previously respected with an accusation of molestation.   Taking responsibility for knowledge like that requires courage, and for those who don’t have the will-power to speak up, the judicial system has started to hold them responsible. 

While former Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky already received a conviction for sexually abusing 10 boys,  other cases are pending around the people who may have known of Sandusky’s abuses; related allegations include failure to report and perjury. A report from Louis J. Freeh, director of the F.B.I., outlined that many support staff suspected the abuses and choose to silence concerns, rather than address them. This alleged evasion of confrontation allowed Sandusky to continue to abuse minors over the course of several years.

[In an interesting side note, a primary witness in the case against Sandusky, filed his own suit against the university. Mike McQueary, a former graduate assistant, claims that Penn State used him as a scapegoat, damaging his reputation. His testimony played an important role in the trial, though his subsequent strife illustrates why some may be reluctant to expose the crimes of superiors.]

The Sandusky trial wasn’t the only sexual abuse case to come out of Pennsylvania this summer. In July, a Catholic official, Monsignor William J. Lynn, was sentenced to 3-6 years for concealing sex abuses by priests. This trial marked the first conviction of a Roman Catholic official in the U.S.  — although charges of sexual abuse of minors in the catholic church arose frequently over the last few decades.

A petition through Change.org started circulating recently to address a parallel issue in a Kansas City, Missouri diocese. Bishop Robert Finn “shielded a pedophile priest,” reported the New York Times. And the author of the petition, Jeff Weis, wants the bishop to resign his post.

I don’t think this is a tall order, requesting the removal of someone convicted of protecting adult offenders over vulnerable children. The criminal justice system must be careful of newly criminalizing offences, but when it comes to child abuse someone must advocate for children.  That means expecting adults to take information they probably didn’t seek or desire and share it with authorities to prevent further abuse. If adult witnesses don’t take action, more and more children will be subject to the predation of abusers.

FYI: Jerry Sandusky faces sentencing this Tuesday, October 9.

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Defining “Human Rights”

Over the last year I’ve been honing a specialty for my pursuits in the field of journalism, and on several occasions I told people that I wanted my beat to focus on human rights and social justice. But I feel like I’m only just starting to understand what human rights even means.

In my work for a course on “Women’s International Human Rights,” I have to keep a glossary of terms. “Human Rights” stands as the first term on my list, and I realized after a few class meetings that it’s a complex concept with a rich history.

The United Nations are largely responsible for the establishment of codified human rights, and that process began after the genocide of World War II. The UN General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, but it still didn’t have any teeth for reinforcement, and its language betrayed some gender bias.

In an intense criticism of the Declaration, Catherine MacKinnon asks, “Are Women Human?” citing the language in Article 1 of the document: “All human beings…should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” Men would not feel included if that document suggested all humans treat each other as sisters, suggests MacKinnon.

Furthermore, Article 23 reads, “Everyone who works has the right to just and favorable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity,” yet women today still do not receive equal pay and many struggle to support their own families to a dignified existence.

The establishment of codified human rights did by no means put men and women on equal footing, but it proved to be an important step in universalizing the idea that all humans deserve life, and dignity, and other immutable rights.

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights….Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. (Articles 1 and 2)

Other rights set out in the initial UN Declaration go beyond the US Bill of Rights and the “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness” of the Declaration of Independence. In addition to the right of a fair trial and freedom from torture, the Universal Declaration states we all share the right to have a family, health, education, cultural life, leisure time, and more.

But the Universal Declaration does not do into depth about how to protect minority or underrepresented groups who experience systemic oppression. So more committees formed in the UN to monitor abuses against these groups and to support them. These groups include the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (1965) and The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (1979), among others.

All these details about international human rights are new to me. But I’m thrilled to learn about which countries have adopted various UN treaties and how that reflects on state protection of particular human rights. With each new discovery of the fascinating history of human rights documentation, I learn about more human rights violations. And these rights are violated in the United States as much as the next country. In this blog I’ll be sharing my discoveries and criticisms around human rights issues as I delve in deeper this semester and beyond.

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Thoughtful Interview in the Shadow of Treyvon Martin’s Death

The death of Treyvon Martin rests on the minds and hearts of many Americans. The controversy over the investigation and delay of charges toward his killer George Zimmerman resound throughout the media. Local news outlets estimate that tens of thousands will attend a rally today in Sanford, Florida demanding justice for Martin’s death. His parents collected over 1.5 million signatures on Change.org to petition law enforcement in Sanford to take action. Obama responded sympathetically to the event stating, “If I had a son, he’d look like Treyvon.” Commentary on the event and the racial and legal implications resound throughout the blogosphere.

Through the uproar about this tragic issue, I zeroed in on a story about a woman who lost her favorite brother in an incident similar to Martin’s killing. When her African American sons entered adolescence, she addressed the prejudice they would face and tried to prepare her boys to avoid confrontations that could unjustly challenge their lives.

NPR interviewed author Donna Britt last week, but she has been talking about misperceptions of African American men since at least 1994. Britt wrote about the talks she had with her adolescent sons in her Washington Post column. For the interview with NPR, two of her sons joined her and discussed the bias they face as African American young men.

Britt and her sons spoke openly about preparing for prejudice and the frustrations that come from being stereotyped. Darrell Britt-Gibson reflected on the tension and the susceptibility he feels around law enforcement, “I mean, it’s hard not to be black you know.”

Justin Britt-Gibson commented on the Treyvon Martin case, “[A]m I hurt? Absolutely. Does my heart break? Without a doubt. But am I surprised? No. And I think that’s part of the bigger problem.”

I would recommend this interview to anyone willing to get a broader perspective about the racial tensions surfacing with Martin’s death.

Britt, who impressed me with her pragmatic approach toward racism, ended the interview with an interesting insight toward change.

She said, “[R]acism is, I think, a bit like being in the water or the air.  And I think of it the same way that I think of sexism. These things, we absorb them. And so it takes time and love and forgiveness, and shining a bright light on situations like what happened to Trayvon, to really make the shifts deep enough and permanent enough that things like this don’t happen.”

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Happy International Women’s Day!

I wonder as I write the title to this post, if life today can be considered a happy time for women. As women’s health sits center stage with the religious freedom controversy, for better or worse, it has a lot of people fired up.

Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood, headlined on last night’s The Daily Show with an inspiring, no-nonsense attitude and an arsenal of statistics. She showed uncompromising confidence in Planned Parenthood, and the support they provide to the entire nation (supporting American women = supporting our nation). She acknowledged that one in five American women receives services from Planned Parenthood in her lifetime. She also pointed out that 90% of care from Planned Parenthood is preventative. I highly recommend the interview to curious or skeptical readers.

A few days ago, Jessica Winter provided a wry, critical look at how legislators, employers, judges, and commentators throw their weight around to the detriment of women’s civil liberties. The article confronts the status quo through a serial list of offences against women. She implies that in this world where talking heads resound and court cases set precedents, a slight to one woman is a slight to all women. I can’t think of a better message for International Women’s Day.

Photo from NPR, via The Daily Beast

But women are talking about more than just health care. Newsweek hosts the third annual Women in the World Summit, with an impressive line up of speakers. Since Tina Brown took over as editor, they have done a great job covering women’s issues. A few days ago they published a retrospective pieceabout how female journalists rose to prominence with NPR when other media outlets were not so open to women. These women took the slim opportunities available to them and made a name for themselves. The story describes the “Fallopian Jungle” where these “Founding Mothers” worked.

The internets flow today with a surplus of stories by, for, and about women. I can’t possibly reference all the stories I’m interested in, but I hope they extend beyond International Women’s Day. Here’s to today’s conversation!

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A Look Back at Haiti Through Sontag’s Good Writing

I visited Haiti in the summer of 2007, and although I traveled for professional reasons, the experience was emotional. I maintain a powerful interest in and empathy for the people I met, the program I participated in, and the country in general.

Deborah Sontag’s coverage of the 2010 earthquake earned her a Pulitzer nomination and has kept me in touch with a country I struggled to understand, even when I worked and lived in Jacmel and Leogane.

I reviewed Sontag’s articles after I learned she was nominated in the International Reporting category of the 2011 Pulitzer Prizes, and one caught and kept my attention. On October 17, 2010 the New York Times published, “Weary of Debris, Haiti Finally Sees Some Vanish.”

This article focuses on an American character involved with clean up, but Sontag conveys the burden of wreckage in Haiti, on Haitians, after the earthquake. Sontag tells this story though Randal Perkins, whose pressed jeans stand in stark contrast to the collapsed funeral home he’s clearing. And she does not lose sight of the way Haitians are experiencing the clean-up.

Aside from nice pacing, appropriately placed quotes, and interesting character development throughout, I loved her phrasing:

“It has been obvious since January that clearing the wreckage is the necessary prelude to this country’s reconstruction, physically and psychologically. But the problem was so dauntingly big and complex that the government and donors got stuck in visionary mode, planning the future while the present remained mired in rubble.”

In two sentences she manages to summarize the complex situation, while layering insight on scene-setting.

Sontag chooses not to end with something from a bureaucrat or contractor involved in the clean-up. Instead she grounds the end of the story as she started it in the headline, with emotion, honesty, and a Haitian perspective. She ends with a bittersweet quote from an onlooker:

“‘It’s beautiful,’ Ernst Saint Albor, 36, said as he leaned on his bicycle watching one building come down. ‘It looks like destruction, but it’s progress. We cannot bear to see these collapsed buildings any longer. Be gone with them.’”

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