By Kristen O'Neill
With multiple 24-hour news networks and access to them from any internet enabled device, it’s fair to say that the media has a big influence over Americans. It’s an important responsibility, when a single word can change the tone of a sentence, and consequently the entire article. As a Journalism student at Stony Brook University, I know how important it is to make sure everything I say is as fair and correct as possible. But it seems like the media drops the ball with a topic every now and again. This time, it’s with post-traumatic stress disorder.
In the past few years, soldiers in the military have been involved with various violent crimes and incidents, most recently with the Fort Hood shootings on April 2nd, 2014. A specialist named Ivan Lopez reportedly killed three people and then took his own life following an altercation with another soldier on the base. When news networks began to report, officials were clear in saying that had not yet established a motive and they didn’t know what caused Lopez to do what he did. Yet CNN’s story on the incident mentioned the soldier was being evaluated for PTSD within the first two sentences. The article then says officials have the task of figuring out what in his “background and medical treatment (Sanchez and Brumfield)” could have triggered the shooting. A reader four sentences into the article now knows nothing about the event except that Lopez was suffering from various psychiatric disorders, was being evaluated for PTSD, and he killed people. These associations plant a seed in the reader’s mind that PTSD is associated with violence.
So many news outlets were making this unconscious connection between PTSD and the shooting that the New York Times published an article on April 4th, 2014 about mental health officials concerned with the media’s handling of the Fort Hood incident. Officials were concerned that they were painting those suffering from PTSD as violent, despite a lack of data backing it up and that being dismissed as a possible trigger anyway. Dr. Harry Croft, a psychiatrist, said, “There’s a misconception with PTSD that a symptom is anger and violence” (“Experts Dispel PTSD…”).
But even after the New York Times ran that story, less than a year later they published an article about an army veteran who was being charged with threatening a shooting in the U.S. capitol. In the first sentence, the veteran is said to be diagnosed with PTSD and has threatened to shoot his wife and others. In the next sentence, we learn the suspect’s name. The story is only 214 words long yet mentions the soldier’s PTSD two more times but not any official motive for the threats (Simpson). Even the most level-headed reader is left to assume that the two must be connected in some way; the article implies that PTSD had something to do with it.
Here’s the problem with these implications and associations. They are not based in fact. Journalists are not psychiatrists, they are not experts in mental health and they don’t have the authority to decide whether a person’s health is connected to their actions – they have to ask questions to figure that out. The fact that these soldiers were suffering from or being evaluated for PTSD is an important fact about them and should be included in the story, just not in the first few sentences, only to be dispelled later in the article. There is a lack of transparency and fairness in reporting about PTSD and it is misleading. As a journalism student, if there’s one thing you don’t want to be, it’s misleading. These media outlets are falling into the stigma and stereotypes of PTSD and in doing so are perpetuating them in the process of reporting.
Simpson, Ian. "Army Veteran Charged With Threatening U.S. Capitol Shooting." The New York Times 5 Feb. 2015. The New York Times. Web. 17 Apr. 2015. <http://www.nytimes.com/reuters/2015/02/05/us/05reuters-usa-maryland-capitol.html?_r=0>.
"Experts Dispel PTSD Link to Violence After Fort Hood Incident." The New York Times 3 Apr. 2014. The New York Times. Web. 17 Apr. 2015. <http://www.nytimes.com/reuters/2014/04/03/us/03reuters-usa-shooting-forthood-health.html>.
Sanchez, Ray, and Ben Brumfield. "Fort Hood Shooter Was Iraq Vet Being Treated for Mental Health Issues." CNN 4 Apr. 2014. CNN. Web. 17 Apr. 2015. <http://www.cnn.com/2014/04/02/us/fort-hood-shooter-profile/>.