Violence: Mental Health, Family, and Media Reporting

Violence: Mental Health, Family, and Media Reporting

Samuel Teague (Swinburne University, Australia) and Peter Robinson (Swinburne University, Australia)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-7402-6.ch008


This chapter explores the extent to which journalists draw on long-standing mental health narratives when telling their stories about the “mentally ill” and, in particular, their tendency to depict the mentally ill as violent and dangerous. The chapter is divided into three sub-categories based on the perpetrators of violent crime committed against members of their immediate family. These were “fathers,” of which 24 articles were dedicated to the stories of 11 men; “mothers,” where 22 articles documented the stories of 24 mothers who harmed their children; and finally, “progeny,” where 58 articles presented 17 cases of sons or daughters who killed, or planned to kill, one or both of their parents. Despite differences in the way Australian journalists explain the violence depicted in these stories, particularly when the perpetrator was a female, they continually drew on mental health as an explanatory device to account for how and why these crimes took place. This provides evidence for a continuation of the confinement narrative presented in Chapter 1.
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Author and journalist Sonya Voumard (2016) wrote about the intricacies of constructing news stories in her work entitled The Media and the Massacre. She wrote the following in regard to how journalists can use accounts provided by interviewees:

As a journalist you want something out of a subject: good quotes, insights, preferably controversial material. You must strike a rapport, conversationally win over the subject … Back at the office, the reality hits that journalism is an inexact science with great limitations. Variables like space, time, objectivity, editors and other points of view mean you can never guarantee that you will tell the exact story the subject wants told … you reject what you don’t want, select and prioritize what you do.

Voumard’s argument offers insight into the reality of assembling newspaper articles for print or online publication. Most revealing is the statement “you reject what you don’t want, select and prioritize what you do”. The analysis presented in this chapter offers support for this practice, evidenced in the way the mental health explanatory narrative was used differently across the mothers and fathers samples. It is remarkable how often journalists chose to select and prioritize mental illness in stories of violent crime and murder, and this was most evident in those articles devoted to mothers who killed their children.

This chapter is about storytelling, and in particular, the extent to which Australian journalists draw on mental health narratives when they tell their stories about the mentally ill. As explained in Chapter One, these narratives have changed over time, but still operate today in both subtle and overt ways. The authors conduct an analysis of the way journalists draw on and inform these narratives using discourse and narrative analysis techniques. The articles included in the analysis were collected from eight hard-copy Australian newspapers sourced through Factiva. Factiva was used to source articles published between November 2000 and May 2015. The analysis sourced those pieces containing both search terms “mental illness” and “mentally ill”. Hard copy was chosen as it is considered a “trusted” source of news compared with online news mediums.

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