- How Science Works
- Sources and Experts: Where to Find Them and How to Vet Them
- Making Sense of Science Stats
- Editing for Story
- Editing Controversial Science
- Holding Science to Account
- Covering Health Care
- Climate and the Environment
- Fact-Checking Science Journalism: How to Make Sure Your Stories Are True
Illustrating Complex Science Stories
- The Role of Visuals in Science Journalism
- The Process of Building Science-Centric Graphics
- Strategies for Using Visuals to Put Breaking Science in Context
- Special Considerations for Data Visualization
- Uncertainty and Misinformation
- Editorial Illustration, Photography, and Moving Images
- Additional Reading and Resources
- About the Author
- Social Media and Reader Engagement
- About This Handbook
Avoid Contributing to Stigma
By Erin Brodwin / 3 minute read
Ensuring that reporters are properly vetting science is one way to avoid doing harm. Another involves editing sensitive subjects carefully. Those subjects include but are not limited to suicide, substance overuse and treatment, homelessness, disability, trauma, sexual violence, and mental illness. Language matters. Choosing the proper terms and phrasing to talk about these issues can sometimes mean the difference between someone’s getting help and not getting it.
This is an issue that is especially important in headlines, in which editors must balance brevity and clarity. Sometimes the best word choice may not be the shortest. For example, the word “addict” is commonly used in headlines to describe people who use certain drugs, often opioids, cocaine, heroin, or methamphetamine. Someone who uses drugs certainly has a life outside of those drugs, however, and using the term “addict” defines them only by their drug use. Similarly, some clinicians and advocates prefer to use the term drug “overuse” rather than drug “abuse,” because “abuse” carries a moralistic or judgmental connotation.
Another example involves the use of certain words and phrases with regard to suicide. A common phrase is “committed suicide” when reporting on the death of people who take their own lives. However, that phrase implies that the person committed a crime, when in reality most suicides are the result of long and difficult struggles with mental illnesses. A better phrase is “died by suicide.”
Moreover, when editing stories about suicide, it is important to ensure that reporters do not describe the process by which a person died. Several peer-reviewed studies have found significant evidence of a “copycat effect” — after a highly publicized suicide, clusters of similar-looking suicides take place as people repeat the method.
“How we talk about, write about, and report on suicide matters,” wrote Luna Greenstein in a 2018 blog post for the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “For someone already considering suicide, it’s possible to change their thoughts into action by exposing them to detailed suicide-related content, including graphic depictions or explanations of the death or revealing the method used.”
When the fashion designer Kate Spade died by suicide, in 2018, several news outlets reported graphic details of how she died, including the method and the contents of a suicide note that she left, photos showing her body being transported on a gurney, and headlines that included the means of death.
The website Reporting on Suicide maintains a list, compiled by a variety of experts, of dos and don’ts for reporters and editors.
- Report the death as a suicide; keep information about the location general.
- If a note or letter was found, report that a note was found and is under review.
- Keep information about the person general.
- Report that coping skills, support, and treatment help most people who have thoughts of suicide.
- Describe suicide warning signs and risk factors (such as mental illness and relationship problems) that give the suicide context.
- Report on the death using facts and language that are sensitive to grieving family members and friends.
- Provide context and facts to counter perceptions that the suicide was tied to heroism, honor, or loyalty.
- Research the best available data on suicide epidemiology and use words like “increase” or “rise” rather than words like “skyrocketing.”
- Describe or depict the method or location of the suicide.
- Share the content of a note or letter discovered with the person who died.
- Describe personal details about the person who died.
- Present suicide as a common or acceptable response to hardship.
- Oversimplify or speculate on the reason for the suicide.
- Sensationalize details in the headline or story.
- Glamorize or romanticize suicide.
- Overstate the problem of suicide with words like “epidemic” or “skyrocketing.”
Another frequent source of stigma in health-care reporting is reporting on people with disabilities. Again, it is important to use the most accurate terminology to avoid perpetuating negative stereotypes and beliefs. One general rule involves using what is known as “person-first” language. This sentence construction, which involves placing the word “person” before any descriptions of a disability, avoids implying victimhood or inappropriately defining someone with a disability by that disability.
For example, when referring to someone who uses a wheelchair, do not use the phrase “wheelchair-bound.” Instead, use “person who uses a wheelchair.”
“I personally am not ‘bound’ by my wheelchair,” one person told the University of Kansas’ Research and Training Center on Independent Living. “It is a very liberating device that allows me to work, play, maintain a household, connect with family and friends, and ‘have a life.’”
Editors should also pay close attention to photography choices, because pictures can influence the way readers think about potentially important public-health interventions, such as vaccines, says the freelance writer and editor Jaime Greenring.
Scary photos — even when used without the intention of scaring people — can have a powerful impact on the general public. If you’re editing a story about vaccinations, for example, avoid images that feature dramatic needles or screaming babies. Instead, perhaps, include images of healthy children getting stickers from the clinician or modeling their Band-Aids.
The National Institutes of Health and the National Alliance on Mental Illness are good resources for reporting on any of those subjects. Some journalism schools and groups, such as the Association of Health Care Journalists and the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Center for Health Journalism, are also excellent resources.