Journalists warned about long-distance diagnosis temptation


High-profile news events sometimes provide a platform for members of the mental health community to go on air and discuss that topic in relation to specific players in the news. The shootings in Tucson AZ and the battle between CBS and Charlie Sheen are to such occasions. Journalists are advised to tread these waters carefully.

An analysis from the Columbia School of Journalism took up the topic. In the case of alleged Arizona shooter Jared Loughner, CSJ noted, “Psychiatrists, psychologists, news anchors, and others have shown little   reluctance to diagnose Loughner, whether or not they know anything about   psychiatry, and in the face of what might seem to be a rather large   impediment: None of them have examined the patient.

Similar liberties have been taken countless times, with countless subjects. Lately Sheen and Libya leader Muammar el-Qaddafi have also received long-distance diagnoses from the press.

CSJ points out that a mental health diagnosis is a matter between a trained professional and a patient, and can only be made on the basis of one-on-one examination. As a reminder, it cites the Goldwater rule.

“The rule came into being after the publication of a 1964 article in Fact magazine, which had conducted a mail survey of over 12,000 psychiatrists asking if the Republican presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater, was fit to lead the country. Of the more than 2,000 that responded, about half said, no, variously characterizing the U.S. senator as ‘immature,’ ‘impulsive,’ ‘paranoid,’ and even schizophrenic. The American Psychiatric Association issued public statements condemning the commentary and included the ‘Goldwater rule’ when it drafted The Principles of Medical Ethics With Annotations Especially Applicable to Psychiatry in 1973.”

The irresponsible analysis is called psychobabble, and CSJ notes that Goldwater was able to successfully sue Fact magazine for libel.

It is possible for a journalistic organization to discuss erratic behavior without delving into the mental illness zone. CSJ suggests that this is not only the proper path for responsible journalists, it could also save an organization from possible ligitation and loss are a result of that litigation.