The portrayal of mental health and illness in Australian non-fiction media

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Abstract

Objective

To provide a detailed picture of the extent, nature and quality of portrayal of mental health/illness in Australian non-fiction media.

Method

Media items were retrieved from Australian newspaper, television and radio sources over a 1-year period, and identifying/descriptive data extracted from all items. Quality ratings were made on a randomly selected 10% of items, using an instrument based on criteria in Achieving the Balance (a resource designed to promote responsible reporting of mental health/illness).

Results

Reporting of mental health/illness was common, with 4351 newspaper, 1237 television and 7801 radio items collected during the study period. Media items most frequently focused on policy/program initiatives in mental health (29.0%), or on causes/symptoms/treatment of mental illnesses (23.9%). Stories about mental health issues in the context of crime were relatively uncommon, accounting for only 5.6% of items. Most media items were of good quality on eight of the nine dimensions; the exception was that details of appropriate help services were only included in 6.4% of items.

Conclusions

In contrast to previous research, the current study found that media reporting of mental health/illness was extensive, generally of good quality and focused less on themes of crime and violence than may have been expected. This is encouraging, since there is evidence that negative media portrayal of mental health/illness can detrimentally affect community attitudes. However, there are still opportunities for improving media reporting of mental health/illness, which should be taken up in future media strategies.

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