From source material to news story in New Zealand print media: a prospective study of the stigmatizing processes in depicting mental illness

Aust N Z J Psychiatry. 2001 Oct;35(5):654-9. doi: 10.1080/0004867010060515.


Objective: The aim of this study was to analyse how newspaper articles that depict mental illnesses are generated from source materials.

Method: From a prospectively collected national sample of print materials involving mental illness, 50 published items that related to the Privacy Commissioner's opinion about disclosure of a psychiatric patient's health information were identified. A copy of the Privacy Commissioner's original Case Note and three news stories about the Case Note distributed by the New Zealand Press Association constituted the database. These materials were subjected to discourse analysis. We identified themes and their transformation from the Case Note through the news stories and examined the impact of these transformations on the stigmatization of mental illness.

Results: Four themes were identified: human rights, vulnerability, risk of dangerousness and threat, and mental illness/psychiatric patient. The only potentially positive theme, human rights, was limited both by being fragmented in the source material, and by being utilized, in the published news stories to undermine the legitimacy of the patient's right to privacy. Use of the other themes was consistent with stereotypes about mental illness.

Conclusions: Although there were no inaccuracies in the content of the news stories they were substantially more negative than the source material in their depiction of the identified patient. A potentially positive discourse (human rights) was not by itself sufficient to ensure a positive portrayal of mental illness. An understanding of the transformations is important for efforts to effectively combat the stigmatization of those with mental illness.

MeSH terms

  • Bibliometrics
  • Humans
  • Mental Disorders / psychology*
  • New Zealand
  • Newspapers as Topic / standards
  • Newspapers as Topic / trends*
  • Prejudice*
  • Prospective Studies
  • Social Control, Informal
  • Stereotyping*