Why Mainstream Media Ignore Our Movement or Get It Wrong

Ken Braiterman
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Having been a news reporter for a small-city daily for many years, I know some reasons why mainstream media ignore our movement, or get it wrong, that have nothing to do with hostility or being bought by Big Pharma.  Advocates can do something about it with their local media, but it’s  an uphill struggle that requires some awareness of the problems they face every day.

The built-in limitations  of daily journalism have gotten much worse since I left the business. Mostly a lack of space and staff time.  Space for news shrinks in proportion to the shrinking advertising.

Staffs keep shrinking, but the number of important subjects does not,  Newspapers are fighting a losing battle to maintain quality and journalistic standards as fewer people struggle to do the same amount of work.

And there are so many stories a local paper is required to cover, like the school board,  cops, local elections, and city council.  Mental health stories are required only when someone goes on a shooting spree.

Corporate owners of small-city papers have learned that content does not affect circulation or ad revenue, not even the Pulitzer Prize, and second place, my regional  paper won, 20 years ago.   We staffed those two investigative Pulitzer stories full-time for a year, got big recognition and prestige within the profession and our community, and lost big money on them.

To bottom-line corporate owners, news is part of the overhead, not the product.

Small-city papers can no longer afford specialized medical reporters.  More and more big-city dailies consider them a luxury. If they can, they assign a general reporter to “the health beat,” but even that is getting hard for smaller papers.

Self-Censorship, Not Corporate Censorship

David Oaks
David Oaks

David Oaks of Mindfreedom International wrote, based on conversations with two reporters, that reporters and editors know without being told that some mental health stories are not OK to cover.  His examples are the absence of warnings that people taking anti-psychotics are unusually vulnerable, and can die, in bad heat waves, and stories about brain damage caused  by anti-psychotic meds.

He correctly attributes it to self-censorship, not any ruling that comes down from their corporate owners, and speculates that they are afraid to publish anything that might encourage readers to stop their meds.

I don’t have to speculate about that.  I used to do it myself when I was a reporter and editor.   No boss had to tell me to keep “dangerous, unproven anti-medicine” opinions out of the paper. Millions of people, including me and the whole medical profession, were living proof that meds were good.

This was before I found the recovery and empowerment movement — which was still tiny, obscure, and marginalized — and began to question my diagnosis, medication and the chemical brain disease idea.

Most reporters and editors still believe mental illness is a no-fault chemical imbalance that can be controlled by medication like diabetes.  They won’t know about the Whitaker-aware part of the mental  health world until we tell them in a way that sounds rational and scientific, with positive alternatives, not just criticism of what they’ve been told by experts for years.

The only advocates most of them know are in NAMI or on the mental health system’s payroll..

We’re Left Out of a Story About Our Civil Rights

This news story from Seacoast Online, the internet version of the Portsmouth (NH) Herald, is about an important mental health civil rights lawsuit with national implications.  It’s a good example of why small-city news media ignore our movement.

It was written by Karen Dandurant, a solid, hard-working old pro I’ve known for a long time.  Like everything Karen writes, this story is clear, well-written, accurate, and complete as  far as it goes, which is not far enough to include us.

It’s not Karen’s fault. She had just a few hours to research and write the story, and might have been working on one or two others at the same time.

 Some Background on the Lawsuit

Several people with mental health disabilities are suing the state for confining them to institutions unnecessarily.  Federal law says people with disabilities must be housed in the “least restrictive environment possible.”  These people have been confined to the state psychiatric hospital or a state-owned nursing home for people with mental health disabilities, for as long as  five years.

The NH Disabilities Rights Center (DRCNH), our federally-funded disability lawyers, filed Lynn E. vs Lynch.  It says the state is violating their clients’ civil rights.  The Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law and the Civil Rights Division of the  U.S.  Justice Department quickly joined the case against the state.

Everyone in New Hampshire, up to and including the Commissioner of Health and Human Services and the state mental health director, agrees that the state’s mental health system is “broken.”  But the state says the lawsuit is unfair because they have a mostly-unfunded 10-year plan to fix it.

The Justice Department said that’s too long to make wrongfully confined people wait for relief.

Why Did the Media Ignore Our Movement?

Though Karen has some training as a nurse, she is not up to date on the Whitaker-aware part of the mental health world.  There is no reason why she should be.  Daily news reporters must write about everything, in a hurry.  They are trained to assimilate, synthesize, and present unfamiliar ideas on any subject intelligently and clearly, on deadline.

Jay Couture of Seacoast Community Mental Health  Center
Jay Couture of Seacoast Community Mental Health Center

So she “rounded up the usual suspects,” in this case Amy Messer, the DRCNH lawyer in charge of the case, Jay Couture, the head of her local community mental health center (who also happens to be the head of the CMHCs’ lobby in the state capital), and Joann Muldoon, the head of behavioral health services at her local hospital.

There is also a local peer-run support center in Portsmouth.  She might have called them if she knew it existed, or if she thought this penny-ante program run by “mentally ill” people could be part of a solution to a massive state problem.

Then, Karen reported clearly and accurately what her expert local sources told her: The story says the problem is that the state under-funds community-based mental health services, and the solution is more money for CMHC’s, to medicate more people in the community instead of institutions.

So once again, local media ignored our movement in a story about our health and civil rights.

 Some Ways to Raise Our Profile in Mainstream Media

The first, most important step is to ask the editor (in print) or news director (on radio or TV) for a meeting with the editors and health reporter if there is one.  Focus your message on a few ideas.

These are just my suggestions:

1.  The evidence for the brain disease model is weakening, while evidence for alternatives is getting stronger.  A news reporter like them, named Robert Whitaker, has documented all this, from the scientific literature, in two books that have set the mental health profession on its ear.

2.  The public mental health system has become economically unsustainable, largely because people keep coming in, and nobody graduates or gets well.  Why keep shoveling money into a 60-year-old medical system that does not make people well or get them off disability and poverty benefits?

3.  Tell them about alternatives that are available, or could be created, locally, or have been proven effective elsewhere, and can be replicated..

4.  At the very least, psych meds should be presented as one of many options, not the only option, and made a matter of choice, with full disclosure of the dangers.  Better yet, try other options BEFORE going to medication if alternatives don’t work. “Diagnosis and medication first for everyone forever” has been standard practice for decades, and people don’t get well.  Let’s try something else in addition, not instead of, which sounds extreme to cautious, conventional-minded editors.

5.  Tell them about local peer support options,

6.  Ask if you can write an op-ed or guest editorial.

7.  Try to establish a relationship that helps you both.

DO NOT lecture them about “the media’s responsibility,” or challenge the integrity or sincerity of people they know, and rely on as responsible experts, including NAMI.  Disagree respectfully.  Calling them liars hurts your credibility.

Don’t bury them in printed material or data.  Give only your most significant statistics and one or two charts and graphs.  Explain the significance of each number and graphic in words.

Leave behind a short summary of your message, including your statistics and graphs, names and contact information of people to call when they want your point of view in their stories, and websites that document your message, preferably from reputable journals and institutions..

What About Demonstrations?

Public demonstrations attract media coverage, but sometimes it makes us sound like a bunch of crazies protesting science.  Unless the message is clear, tightly focused, and as local as possible, reporters will just see our slogans, placards, and clothing.

Being against the medical model is too unfocused for most local reporters.  It’s better to support positive, preferably real or proposed local alternatives.

A good, tight focus reporters can grasp and explain quickly might be: drugging children or forced medication in the state or local hospital, or a local case of forced shock treatment,  The operative word here is “local.”

Many people, especially reporters, already have intuitive concerns about drugging children, individual choice, and full disclosure.  They need to be told why those concerns are valid, and that reputable scientists disagree with the reputable scientists who say those things are necessary for public health, safety, education, and welfare.

The American Psychuatruc Assn:  The media ignore our movement's message when it[s unfocused:

Finally, reporters who cover demonstrations — or speeches in auditoriums — appreciate a little help from us to do the best job.  The vast majority of reporters I’ve known are highly motivated to do a good job, but it’s very hard to do it well.

Hand each media person a short printed summary of the main points, with a couple of quotes the reporter can use, and a phone number the reporter can call if questions come up while he’s writing the story. This allows the reporter to listen, absorb, and talk to individuals without worrying about writing down everything said on the platform.

These suggestions and observations are based on my experience reporting and editing daily news.

 

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11 COMMENTS

  1. Prior to MindFreedom’s 2003 hunger strike (see John Carney’s recent blog) on two occasions I, along with the late Loren Mosher (onetime head of Schizophrenic studies at NIMH), psychologist David Jacobs, revered activist survivor, Sally Zinman, and a number of other professionals and psych survivors, met with Pulitzer Prize winning Los Angeles Times editorial writers, Alex Raksin and Bob Sipchen. Though we were to meet for only 15 minutes, each meeting continued for at least 45 minutes of mutually respectful conversation.

    I mention this because, during the hunger strike, unprompted by me or other fasters, I received a call from Mr. Raksin, inquiring how things were going. For days we had been attempting to entice the LAT to cover our event. So I asked Alex why his paper hadn’t covered our fast. He replied that the paper needed a “hook” from us.

    My response was to ask why he didn’t consider a hunger strike (then more than a week in length) by five former psychiatric patients, some of whom had traveled from across the country,one of whom was blind, another of whom had a serious form of arthritis, and a social worker, and which was supported by a well credentialed team of academics and professional mental health experts, an adequate “hook”? He seemed embarrassed, produced no answer, and the conversation soon ended.

    We really did anticipate Mr. Braiterman’s advice. It is my belief that the “movement” must take additional action like the hunger strike which will move the debate into the mainstream media and which will lead to basic questions that will place psychiatry in a defensive position.

    As a first step, the hunger strike was covered by the Washington Post, a Richmond,VA paper, the Pasadena Star-News, the Pasadena Weekly, local NPR, local CBS radio, and the BBC. As one of our experts said, “It got more coverage than I expected, but less than it deserved.”

    Put them on defensive, guys. Force them out into the open by provocative tactics which don’t permit them to marginalize you.

    • Mickey – As smart as the first time I read it, and my comprehension of your comment is only more robust, for what concerns you point to and draw upon in providing needed qualifications for Mr. Braterman’s points, here. Since, as Ted always stresses, it’s about turning the thought into action. Thanks a lot (again), as well as in memory of Kenneth Braiterman.

  2. I would summarize Mickey’s advice, which I agree with, as DO something, already.

    Since our movement was mostly taken over and incorporated into the mental “health” system, this fake “movement” just talks about things like “peers” providing cheap labor for the system. Why should the media cover that? Press releases from the APA announcing the latest drug are a lot more exciting.

    Our movement had no trouble getting media coverage when we were acting like all the other movements for liberation. If we get back to that, then we will be doing something worth reporting on.

    I am glad to read this talk about going back to militant and dramatic actions. Thanks to the people who are bringing this up.

    • I think it is about building a movement and sustaining it. Effective actions come in many forms, from popular science like Whittaker and press releases to local papers as suggested above to working in local committees and what I shall call propaganda by the deed such as hunger strikes and sit ins.

      I hope this website is part of helping build and sustain a movement.

      It does need replicating in the off line world though and I agree that it needs actions like hunger strikes and dramatic actions which get in the news but which are backed up by people with the scientific arguments who are willing to present them widely, such as Mr Whittaker.

  3. Great advice! I agree wholeheartedly with every you said.

    One other way to look at the problem is to take the point of view of the media: why should a journalist give to a critic of psychiatry more trust than to a promoter of extreme 9/11 conspiracies, or to a denier of the moon landing.

    Let’s imagine a reversal of roles, and ourselves as the media: what could somebody say to us that would make us investigate the possibility of Robert Whitaker being nothing more than a hired-gun from Scientology? Probably nothing (I personally would dismiss anybody with such a claim as a fool), but I might be ready to look in more details at a disagreement on a specific issue about dopamine (and I would not give anybody more than one or two shots: if somebody has completely wasted my time, I won’t listen again).

    A quote from Orwell: “The Catholic and the Communist are alike in assuming that an opponent cannot be both honest and intelligent.”

    The media knows that the vast majority of our opponents are both honest and intelligent, so focusing on their character flaws or stupidity will generally not help.

    • Bob Whitaker was formerly an award-winning science writer for the Boston Globe. This hardly qualifies (or disqualifies ) him as an unknown, disreputable hired gun for Scientology. And the the hunger strike (again, see Jack Carney’s recent blog)was supported by a highly qualified academic, professional,and published group of panelists.

      The media can offer their own excuses if they wish. We don’t need to help them out. But perhaps there’s the possibility that I have misunderstood your post.

      • To avoid any confusion about my position: I am a great admirer of Bob Whitaker and his work, and I value enormously his character and scientific credentials, I share his views about psychiatry (and I don’t suspect him at all of being linked to scientology).

        But my claim is that there are also people similar in character or scientific credentials to Bob who have significantly different positions. Understanding that the media is confronted to that dilemma (having to take into account the diverging accounts from credible sources and credible research, and trying to weigh them) is important in deciding how to frame a message.

        Understanding that the media, politicians and the general public are confronted every day to dubious conspiration theorists is important in deciding what message we decide to push front to a particular interlocutor (the criticism of psychiatry is backed by a lot of verifiable facts, but to the ear of the media, it might well sound like a conspiration theory if it is not framed them with care).

        If we care about our issues, we have to help the media understand them, and we can only do that by first putting ourselves in their current shoes (and I was proposing a thought experiment of role playing by imagining a reverse role, where Bob rather than psychiatry would be the defendant).

  4. This is quite a good topic to think about Ken. I was faced with considering these questions about three years ago when I was advocating for a young African American man with autism who was racially profiled and sentenced to 10 years as a felon as the unfortunate consequence of not saying his name and then resisting the assault on him by a police officer for merely walking away. I also thought about it a lot in relation to the Virginia Tech shootings and now, in relation to shocking disabled children at the Judge Rotenberg Center.

    I think that what is happening as the result of Whitaker’s recent book isn’t getting as much coverage as we would like because it is complex and people and reporters these days don’t like “complex” for the many reasons you mentioned as well as others. Much of the complexity has to do with understanding human behavior and the science we are just beginning to have related to the human brain.

    However, I would say that the lawsuit which you have mentioned is really not about Whitaker or medication and “the least restictive” standard is not quite accurate. The lawsuit, in simplistic terms, is about Olmstead, the law of the land, even from a conservative Supreme Court. Its about integration rather than the medical model or the reliance on medication to treat “mental disorders”. Olmstead was pre-Whitaker and should be adherred to whether or not one believes in the medical model or not.

    Olmstead is about being served in the community in the same way others are served and live, play and work. Its about equality of opportunity and and basic fairness and ending discrimination. Its about access to community living which we all should be able to enjoy as a basic human right.

    Olmstead was our Brown v. Board of Education which was supposed to be implemented with “all deliberate speed”. Well, we all know that didn’t happen. Olmstead was about implementation at a reasonable pace which in many states is happening at less than a snail’s pace.

    If a reporter isn’t talking about Olmstead and integration, they’ve missed the boat. And if we aren’t doing the same, its no wonder that the media isn’t getting it right.

    As far as general coverage of the issues raised by Whitaker and many survivor’s and some consumers prior to Whitaker, I think we need to look at what ACT UP did in relation to HIV/AIDS.

  5. We’ve got the internet, we don’t need the lame-stream “legacy” media. I don’t buy newspapers, I don’t buy stocks in newspaper companies, why?

    For those who have the patience, to play a carefully waged game of communicating with these legacy megaphone gatekeepers, I have respect for your patience and resilience.

    Me? I’m giving them about as much thought as they give the people who currently face down getting the needle.

    The reason this movement has grown so much in the last 10 years is in SPITE OF the media. We have the internet, and we have each other.

    Anything else is just a bonus, and a very frustrating bonus to negotiate. I’ll leave it to more patient people.

    It all depends upon how full one’s lifetime quota of betrayal is, I guess.

  6. David Oaks is right about social media.

    I find myself reading MiA before I open my morning paper, which is WaPo, The Washington Post.

    If you’re looking for a publicity stunt, why not call for the return of a few Nobel Prizes?

    Everyone agrees that the guy who received a Nobel for developing the icepick through the eyes procedure for emotional distress should lose his Nobel.

    But what about of the dudes who did the research that launched modern day antidepressant therapy? These are those guys, I believe: http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/medicine/laureates/1970/speedread.html
    They are dead now, but their work doesn’t look so Nobel Prize worthy to me anymore.

    Color me bitter and angry, I would dare to compare winning a Nobel for the explaining how antidepressants work to winning a Nobel for telling the world that quickie lobotomies work. The ice pick guy was stopped.

    Antidepressants don’t work. Yet antidepressants, which may rarely alleviate depression, may unmask bipolar disorder, may be responsible for the bipolar boom, may lead to suicide and/or murder, are selling strong.

    Just a crazy thought. LOL