Newly published research sheds light on how news media shared on social media may represent skewed perspectives on mental health, specifically for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Such representations typically perpetuate inaccurate stereotypes, and when spread across social media, these portrayals can exacerbate misperceptions.
The primary researcher, psychologist Scott Parrot, discusses some of the most prevalent myths regarding PTSD:
“First, people incorrectly assume PTSD affects sufferers immediately after traumatic events when in reality, symptoms can emerge well after an event. Second, people perceive the condition as one affecting only military veterans. PTSD affects 11% to 30% of veterans […] Still, the condition can affect anyone, regardless of occupation, race, gender, age, or other demographics. Third, people incorrectly believe PTSD affects people who are weak and should ‘get over it.’ A number of factors feed PTSD and other mental illnesses, but a supposed connection between PTSD and personal weakness is a myth.”
Parrot further suggests the negative impact of such myths on the population with PTSD, particularly veterans who have PTSD. It is not uncommon for them to refuse to seek help for fear of being labeled “violent, crazy, or dangerous,” a widespread misconception of the public. Parrot points to skewed news media representation as the potential culprit to such a phenomenon.
In order to assess how news media impact public perceptions of PTSD, Parrott aimed to answer the following questions:
- When American news outlets discuss PTSD, how often are they portrayed with stigmatizing frames (portrayal of PTSD that perpetuates misinformation or stereotypes) or counter-stigmatizing frames (description of PTSD that challenges stigma)?
- Is there a difference between news organization types (prestigious media organizations like The New York Times, Washington Post, national television media such as CNN or Fox News, or regional publications such as Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times, etc.) and how they portray PTSD?
880 Twitter posts that discussed PTSD from March 2013 and July 2021 by sixteen varying news organizations were assessed. Specifically, based on their portrayal of PTSD, each post was assessed whether they presented PTSD with stigmatizing frames, counter-stigmatizing frames, both, or neither.
A post was considered to have a stigmatizing frame if it perpetuated the PTSD stereotypes by associating it with a veteran’s illness or involving violence. It was further marked as having stigmatizing frames if it illustrated poor health care treatment or discrimination against the population as it may impact their decision to seek treatment.
On the other hand, a post was considered to have a counter-stigmatizing frame if it challenged existing PTSD stigma and stereotypes. For example, such posts provided helpful information about PTSD, challenged misinformation, called for an end to stigma, or humanized PTSD patients by introducing people with PTSD.
Upon assessment, as Parrot suspected, most (60%) news organizations used stigmatizing frames when discussing PTSD. In addition, a significant portion of these posts either associated PTSD with veterans (48%) or violence (21%) or marginalized the gravity of PTSD by using it to describe insignificant situations, such as dive bars shutting down.
Further, it is suggested that news organizations portrayed PTSD with significantly fewer counter-stigmatization frames (37%). Only 18% of posts provided helpful information, such as scientific novel treatments for PTSD, and 16% offered one-sided contact with celebrities who disclosed their experience with PTSD.
Lastly, Parrot addresses his final research question through a chi-square statistical analysis. Upon analysis, Parrot further found that television news networks tend to illustrate PTSD with stigmatizing frames far more than their prestigious or regional media counterparts.
Overall, such a heavy representation that stereotypes and stigmatizes PTSD is a significant concern. Parrot adds his voice to the matter:
“Existing research into media stereotyping suggests the potential for negative outcomes when news organizations employ stigmatizing frames of PTSD […] The mass media are an important source of information concerning both veterans and mental illness. People might depend on news, and other media fare for information about PTSD when they lack personal experience or do not know someone (family, friend) who has been diagnosed with the condition[…] When stigmatizing frames are used to plug such information voids, the effects can be problematic for individuals and society.”
The current study leaves much room for future research with its limitations. While the present study only assesses the stigmatization frames within texts, many news outlets use videos, images, and voice tones to deliver information. It would be important to analyze and understand how PTSD and other mental illnesses are framed through such different mediums and the impact that follows.
Further, though the present study powerfully illustrates the broad picture of a strong preference for a stigmatization frame when covering news with PTSD, it does not address why. Understanding the motivation or coverage process behind the portrayal could potentially provide leeway to reducing myths and decreasing stigmatization through news media.
This literature highlights the significance of news media’s impact on public understanding of PTSD. Unfortunately, despite its potential to mitigate stigmatized topics such as mental health issues and provide public awareness and solutions to various issues, the news media has failed to do so so far.
Parrott, S., (2022). PTSD in the News: Media Framing, Stigma, and Myths About Mental Illness. Electronic News: Broadcast and Mobile Journalism. DOI: 10.1177/19312431221146757 (Link)