Press complaint: exploitation of mental illness

datePosted on 12:13, April 26th, 2009 by Anita

This is my first try at a press complaint, so I’d appreciate suggestions and feedback before it goes in the mail next week. As you can see I’m struggling to address only the issue of coverage of the actions of the mentally ill.

The process is that I have to complain to the editors first, so this will go to all three sunday papers.


Dear <title>.

Complaint: exploitation of mentally ill individual

On Sunday 19 April 2009 <paper> ran a story about the actions of an mentally ill man titled <title>. This story included personal details including details of a suicide attempt and communication with the media when his thinking was clearly disordered and altered by his mental illness. I believe the publication of this article was unethical, is inconsistent with the principles of the New Zealand Press Council, and sets an unacceptable precedent for media coverage of the actions of the mentally ill. It is also damaging for other mentally ill New Zealanders by diminishing the privacy which they can expect to be provided.

The principles of the New Zealand Press Council not only identify privacy as a core principle, but also touch on issues such as individuals suffering from trauma or grief and children and young people. They provide clear guidance that vulnerable people must be protected from unnecessary scrutiny and from exploitation by the media.

While, in this particular case, the mentally ill individual has clearly voluntarily previously engaged with the media over his personal life, no reasonable person could be sure he was capable of genuine consent given the state of his mental health described in the article. The article, therefore, significantly breached his privacy. It may be possible to argue that this case was exceptional, but the underpinning principles of privacy and fairness are not exclusive to people who have no previous media engagement.  People in New Zealand have a right to have their privacy protected, particularly when they are vulnerable or suffering from disordered or delusional thinking which prevents them from actively protecting their own privacy.

Stories like this have two important negative impacts on mentally ill people in New Zealand. Firstly they set a precedent that the media may freely publish information either about the disordered actions of mentally ill individuals, or information they may disclose while disordered or delusional. Secondly they create a culture in which the expectation of privacy of the mentally ill is diminished and increases expectation that the stories of mental illness should be made public for the titillation and curiosity of acquaintances, strangers and colleagues.

I am requesting three remedies to balance the damage done by the article:

  1. An acknowledgement that the publication of the article was inappropriate.
  2. The dissemination of clear guidelines for staff addressing the requirement to respect the privacy of the mentally ill (and other vulnerable groups which may feel some obligation to disclose private information). Training for some staff may be appropriate.
  3. The publication of an in depth article on mental illness in New Zealand focussing on the issues of privacy and the impact of disclosure and the attitudes of acquaintances.

If you or your staff would like to get in touch to discuss…

Yours…

3 Responses to “Press complaint: exploitation of mental illness”

  1. The Odds & Ends Drawer | The Hand Mirror on April 26th, 2009 at 22:36

    The Odds & Ends Drawer…

    It’s been a while, but here’s some goodies, in no particular order:…

  2. Lee - MWT on April 27th, 2009 at 08:31

    Yes Anita this is worthy and worthwhile I would be interested to see any response from a ratehr out of control press. It is too often reporting inanities and questionable information as ‘news’ as we have seen with the recent Veitch affair. You go grrrl.

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