News media starting to watch its language

when reporting about mental illness

David Chartrand

David Chartrand

The Associated Press Stylebook — the bible for news media accuracy and terminology — has just released its 2015 updates. The changes include the journalism profession’s first serious attempts to write clearly and accurate about mental health issues in general and suicide in specific.

So far, the mental health community seems most encouraged by the Associated Press’s new guidelines regarding stories about suicide.  The 2015 guidelines provide much-needed expansion of the AP’s 2013 guidelines, which included the first-ever attempts to recommend wording and terminology standards about mental health issues.

The Associated Press guidelines are just that — guidelines. Recommendations. Part dictionary and part encyclopedia. None of it has the force of law or even the leverage of shame. Individual media outlets and web-based publications remain free to set their own conventions for stories about mental illness and suicide.

The new 2015 AP Stylebook updates regarding suicide state:

“Generally, AP does not cover suicides or suicide attempts, unless the person involved is a well-known figure or the circumstances are particularly unusual or publicly disruptive. Suicide stories, when written, should not go into detail on methods used. [NOTE: This one is unlikely to win broad adoption by the US media. Editors and publishers likely will continue to apply case-by-case judgment about which suicides are reported and how much detail is included. – dvc)

“Avoid using committed suicide except in direct quotations from authorities. Alternate phrases include killed himself, took her own life or died by suicide. The verb commit with suicide can imply a criminal act. Laws against suicide have been repealed in the United States and many other places.

“Do not refer to an unsuccessful suicide attempt. Refer instead to an attempted suicide.

“Medically assisted suicide is permitted in some states and countries. Advocacy groups call it death with dignity, but AP doesn’t use that phrase on its own. When referring to legislation whose name includes death with dignity or similar terms, just say the law allows the terminally ill to end their own lives unless the name itself of the legislation is at issue.”

It should be noted that the 2015 AP Stylebook also included new sections on reporting about:

The Affordable Care Act; animal welfare activist; autism spectrum disorder; execution-style; favorite; global warming; justify; Kathmandu; meme; obscenities, profanities, vulgarities; One World trade Center; suicide; Swarm; and Ulaanbaatar. The Sports updates include guidelines about heatstroke, NCAA Tournament, Olympics, parking the bus and Tommy John surgery. New entries in the Food section include BLT, craft brewery, meze, preheat, profiterole and tsimmes. The Fashion chapter explains such terms as dirndl, guayabera, neoprene and sleeved.

It’s encouraging to know that the journalism profession reached consensus about Ulaanbaatar, dirndl and guayabera at the same time we got our language straight about mental illness.  More than 40,000 Americans die by suicide every year and another 500,000 are treated annually in US hospitals after suicide attempts.  I haven’t checked the numbers but am fairly certain that far fewer people are harmed each year by dirndl skirts.

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