My Student Calls Out a Mental Health Stigma in a Biased Headline — But Here’s Why We Shouldn’t Blame “The Media”

This morning a journalism student told me a friend in a different class was complaining that “the media” was stigmatizing mental illness in its coverage of yesterday’s mass shooting in California.

My student told me she remembered I had mentioned that reporters often don’t write the headlines under which their stories are published, but she wondered what else she might have said.

I pointed out that defending vague complaints about “the media” is pointless, because “the media” is not a singe entity. If you once got stuck in a poorly maintained elevator, I’m not going to spend any time defending elevators in general, but I won’t join you in attacking all elevators. I’ll just ask you what elevator I should avoid.

So I asked my student to look at the specific article in question.

It’s an AP story, headlined “California gunman Ian David Long was ex-Marine machine-gunner – and sheriff says he might have suffered PTSD.”

After details about the suspect’s military background and personal life, paragraph three mentions the suspect’s erratic behavior, and paragraph 4 says neighbors heard loud domestic disputes in April, and mental health authorities assessed Long and cleared him.

Paragraph 5 reads thus:

“The mental health experts out there cleared him that day,” [Ventura County Sheriff Geoff] Dean said Thursday, though they were concerned he might be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder because of his military service.

So the story notes that months ago, the suspect was cleared by authorities who suspected that mental health might have been a factor in a domestic dispute.

I do think that’s newsworthy, but the story is right to place it in paragraph 5. The headline names a specific mental health issue, blowing it out of proportion. But was my student’s friend right to blame “the media”?

Let’s look at the source — scmp.com, where the story is presented under the banner “Gun violence in the US.”

That’s the South China Morning Post, the English-language paper of record based in Hong Kong. Because a Hong Kong newspaper doesn’t have a full-time reporter stationed in every county in California, it ran a story from the Associated Press.

The Associated Press is a collection of news organizations that all agree to share their coverage. So as long as the SCMP pays its dues, it didn’t do anything wrong by reprinting an AP article.

Let’s take a look at the article as it appeared in on the AP website.

That’s the same lead, and the first 10 or so paragraphs are identical as the one my student showed me. The SCMP version includes some different details (which is normal — it looks like the AP added some details about the region that would be particularly useful to an international audience), and concludes with “This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: bar gunman went from U.S. Marine to living with mum.” 

What that means is that the SCMP initially ran the story in its print edition, using the headline the AP provided; but that someone changed the headline for the online edition — probably so that more people like my student’s friend would react to it and share it on social media.

Note also that the original AP story features a picture of the suspect looking scraggly; it’s a DMV photo, according to the credit. The SCMP version instead leads with a photo of the suspect in his military uniform, which, together with the misleading headline about PTSD, supplies a different context for the story.

My student’s friend, who was rightly complaining about stigmatization of mental illness, was reacting to an inaccurate, sensationalistic headline that was not supplied by the AP, nor was it supplied by the journalists who put together the SCMP’s print edition, but was instead created for the SCMP website.

And my student’s friend, my student, and I shared the SCMP story.  Webmasters don’t care whether people are sharing a story because they’re impressed by the quality of the journalism or because they’re critical about the bias in the headline. What they want is clicks.

According to Wikipedia, in1993, the SCMP was once owned by Rupert Murdoch, the founder of Fox News Corporation, but has been sold several times since then. In an environment where the Chinese government places very tight controls on its citizens, SCMP has run editorials against China’s forced one-child policy and does run stories on commemorations of the Tiananmen Square Massacre. These assertions of editorial independence suggest that it is not merely a mouthpiece for the Chinese government; however, the current owner was quoted by one of his own reporters as defending the Chinese government’s crackdown of pro-democracy demonstrators. (The quote was later deleted and the reporter was suspended, but the editors refused their owner’s demand to publish a correction.)

I have not posted a link to the SCMP’s version; instead I will again link to the AP’s original version: “California bar gunman went from a Marine to living with mom (AP).