Mental Illness and Privacy

St. Patrick’s Mental Health Services image

By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists.

Mental illness places a special responsibility on journalists to be sensitive to those involved in a story, which can become unusually complicated.

For example, the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists was contacted in a case involving a missing 23-year-old woman last seen in a Lake Placid, New York, hotel. Her father posted information about her disappearance on his Facebook page.

A reporter for the Adirondack Daily Enterprise in Saranac Lake, New York, interviewed the father, who said his daughter had been on anxiety medications and exhibited “bizarre behavior” during a Skype call with her. The missing woman was off her medications, her best friend told the father.

“We had some reservations about publishing all this information about her,” the newspaper’s managing editor told AdviceLine, “but we went ahead and published it anyway.”

Missing person stories pose a familiar dilemma for journalists. They sometimes are criticized for waiting too long to inform the public about a missing person. Worried families want immediate action from media. Experienced journalists know that the missing person in most cases is found safe and unharmed, although not always. Sometimes people are reported missing because of misunderstandings about where they were expected to be.

In the Adirondack Daily Enterprise case, the missing woman was found a few hours after the print edition hit the street.

“Subsequently, we received a phone call from the young woman’s best friend, in which she claimed she had communicated with her friend’s father in confidence, and would not have spoken so freely had she known that her statements would find their way into print,” said the managing editor.

The caller said that her friend, the formerly missing young woman, would be greatly upset to see such private information about herself made public, and that it might do her some harm. She asked the newspaper to redact the online story to remove references to her medical condition, and what the friend had told the woman’s father.

The managing editor asked the AdviceLine adviser if the newspaper should let the record stand, or if the story should be redacted.

In his report on the query, the AdviceLine adviser wrote: “We spoke at some length about the conflict between refusal to alter an already-published story and the ‘minimize harm’ issues raised by the case.

“The most troubling bit had to do with the communication of the woman’s best friend to her father being made public. But the whole question of her privacy, particularly regarding sensitive personal medical information, was an important one.

“She is a private individual, with a greater presumptive right to privacy and consideration of that privacy from journalists. Future employers doing an Internet search of her name, for example, might come up with the story in its unedited form, and it might raise unnecessary red flags for her.

“The issue is: does she have a particularly strong case for special consideration here? Would the public be harmed if the information about her medical condition were to be deleted? Did it really need to know that information at the time the story was first issued.”

The conversation highlighted the “minimize harm” issues of the case, and touched on the possibility that it also could serve as a public forum topic on how the media should cover cases involving people with mental illness.

The managing editor responded: “Oh, wow, this is even better advice than I expected. Thank you so much – I do in fact know a professor who would love to help moderate a discussion.” He also agreed to AdviceLine’s use of the Adirondack Daily Enterprise case “as a teaching example.”

The Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics urges journalists to minimize harm in news reports.

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The Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists was founded in 2001 by the Chicago Headline Club (Chicago professional chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists) and Loyola University Chicago Center for Ethics and Social Justice. It partnered with the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2013. It is a free service.

Professional journalists are invited to contact the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists for guidance on ethics. Call 866-DILEMMA or ethicsadvicelineforjournalists.org.

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