Where are the talking heads?

I was reading this interesting piece of research today about the bias in reporting of mental health stories.

The headline conclusion is that there is a difference between what stories about mental health New Scientist magazine chooses to cover and what stories the BBC chooses to cover.

The research was conducted by George Szmukler at the Institute of Psychiatry and his colleagues. It focused on coverage of mental disorders research on the BBC news website from 1999 to 2008, and in New Scientist magazine news and features from Aug 2008 to April 2010. This led to the identification of 1015 relevant stories on the BBC (102 per year) and 133 stories from New Scientist (76 per year).

The researchers concluded that both tended to focus more on medicalised discourses around mental health with seventy-five per cent of the BBC’s coverage on biological research; New Scientist showed a similar trend. There was less discussion of psychological approaches.

What really interested me were their findings about commentators. They found that while most BBC stories included quotes from commentators intended to provide some context, including from 973 named individual: “There was a bias towards medical commentary. The six most frequently quoted commentators included three from the Alzheimer’s Society, two from the Alzheimer’s Research Trust and one from SANE.”

In short, most stories about research into mental disorders written up for BBC online were about biology and most had commentary from a medical perspective; so in those stories we had doctors mostly talking about brains.

Where are we in this?

While this research covered only stories about medical research into mental disorders, it set me thinking about how mental health related stories are represented in the media. The question it posed for me was: ‘Why don’t we get more people who experience mental health difficulties as commentators in news media?’

We’re all familiar with the ways that television, radio and print represent news. There are ‘on the spot’ news stories where journalists themselves are present as something unfolds. These could be called ‘went there, found something out’ stories. These will usually contain input from people ‘at the scene’ who contribute what they saw or experienced.

The problem is that a lot of things that happen in the world don’t happen in ‘on the spot’ ways. It’s quite easy to report a building on fire, but it’s a bit more difficult to report the reasons why the building is on fire if it’s related to the choice of building materials or a series of pieces of legislation. Print media is much better suited to covering complicated stories that unfold over time and require context and knowledge for you to make sense of them.

Television news does something that you might call ‘pseudo on the spot’ reporting, where reporters go to where something is or has happened and broadcast as if the story is unfolding, despite the fact that the real action has either already happened or is actually happening somewhere else. Think of freezing cold reporters standing outside of government buildings talking about something that happened there earlier that day.

As not that much really happens in ‘real time’ news reporting of television and radio relies far more ‘talking heads’ to create stories. You’ll get your reporter standing in the drizzle somewhere, but you’ll also get a series of spokespeople, talking heads, pundits, experts, correspondents or sundry other figures who’ll be used to add further information to the story. Radio works in a similar way.

Often there’ll be a space for a spokesperson to make a response. Spokespeople are always representing the interests of a particular organisation, body or group.

Sometimes, there’ll be a contribution from someone affected by the subject of the news story. If it’s a story about mental health this is where you’ll see a contribution, if you’re lucky, from a person who experiences mental health difficulties or someone who knows one.

What happens a lot is the use of people talking to provide different points of view on a story or to add additional information or points of interest. They are used to try to work out what a story actually means. The classic format for this is ‘here’s a person who agrees with what is happening in this news story, here’s a person who disagrees and it’s over to our expert for more details’.

Often these people are not directly concerned with the events that make up the news story but people who know something about it, or have something to say about it, and, if you’re lucky, people who both know about it and have something to say about it. The format can set different views against each other or bring differing points of view to addressing a particular issue. More often than not, the format tends to be based on speculation (“what effect do you think this story will have?”) or statement of position (“where do you stand on this?”). Sometimes it’s not clear whether a given contributor is occupying one or the other of these positions.

What I wondered is: Why aren’t there more mental health talking heads? Or to put it another way; why aren’t more people with mental health difficulties asked what stories about mental health mean?

Who is asked to speak and why?

It would seem that we will get a medical view in the role of expert, often a charity view from the point of view of spokesperson and a person with mental health difficulties in the role of personal experience (if there’s space for that) but we’ll very rarely, if ever, get a person with mental health difficulties in the role of commentator or person with an interesting point of view on the issues involved in a story or the ability to explain what a story means.

I was recently at #transcamp, organised by TransMediaWatch, a day devoted to trying to find ways to make media coverage of trans people and trans issues better and more accurate. A lot of the discussion revolved around the fact that there were very few accurate portrayals of trans people in the media. One of the things that was recognised was there wasn’t many trans people who could communicate the experiences of the trans community in a direct and engaging manner. The subtext to this was that somehow trans people needed to find ways to transcend the stereotypical ways in which trans issues were represented.

Trans people are often represented in ways that fit existing media narratives. In other words the media finds trans people to be trans in the way that the media expects trans people to be. Trans is treated as an issue (with for and against) as much as it is represented as an experience. The people were enlisted by the media to tell the story that the media had already decided it was telling. One of the main themes that came out of the day was that trans people need to find ways of telling stories in mainstream media that manage to ‘jump the rails’ of established stories, so shaking off the position that the story assigns to them.

In that discussion, it occurred to me that the issue of ‘speaking for’ or ‘speaking on behalf of’ was not a simple one. It set me in mind of a segment from mid-nineties satirical news masterpiece The Day Today where the news anchor character played by Chris Morris was interviewing a black man subtitled as ‘speaking for every black person’.

When you get a spokesperson it’s acknowledged that they represent a partial point of view. When you get someone with direct experience they are often somehow seen to embody all possible points of view or all people affected, like speaking for every black person.

When we were discussing this at #transcamp, I raised the case of the Tax Payer Alliance. They are regularly wheeled into news coverage to make a statement about the use of ‘tax payer’s money’, usually in opposition to someone suggesting how some of it should be spent. You’ll most often see them as presenting the ‘balancing’ point of view in a segment discussing changes to public spending. The Tax Payers Alliance is on the news because it represents a very clear set of ideas in a clear way representing a clear interest group. In other words people know what they’re trying to make happen and where they fit in to the story. They provide the taking heads that are needed by the people making news coverage.

This set me wondering; why isn’t there a similar set of people providing trans opinion or indeed mental health opinion?

Where are the mental health talking heads?

Interestingly, I think that trans people in the UK are closer to carving out that space than people with mental health difficulties in the UK.

I’d hazard to guess (and am very open to being corrected) it’s because trans people in the UK don’t really have the same history of others speaking for them and are not also seen as a ‘social challenge’ in the same way that people with mental health difficulties are.

They also aren’t seen as part of an amorphous group, because they have managed through the work of previous campaigners to avoid being pigeon-holed, but also because trans people aren’t seen as ‘afflicted’ in the same way that people with mental health difficulties are, despite experiencing high levels of very real discrimination and prejudice. As such, they are seen as a minority carving a way through life, rather than a collection of symptoms who may potentially one day be ‘cured’. They are seen as the people who have the answers about what it means to be trans. With mental health it sometimes feels like the instinct is to turn to everyone but people with mental health difficulties to explain what an event that affects us actually means.

As the research outlined above suggests, mental health is still seen as primarily a medical issue rather than as a disability. To put it another way, it is seen as an abstract experience of ill health rather than something that people live with over a period of time. Eventually, the research model suggests, mental health difficulty will be eradicated like rickets or TB. Mental health difficulty is seen as something that can be solved, and as such, does not represent something that is weaved through all of the elements of the life of the individual that experiences it.

Both the major charities and the medical establish still continue to present mental health difficulty through the prism of ‘problem/solution’ rather than through the prism of lived experience. This is in contrast to the ways in which people with other disabilities have developed the social model of disability as way of building a story about disability that does not rely on society doing something for people with disabilities but demands that society gets out of the way and stops making disability the issue rather than recognising it is society that disables by the way it is put together in favour of those without disabilities.

There is still an over-riding bias toward seeing people with mental health difficulties as a group that others do good for without seeing us a discrete group in society who may have opinions and ideas of our own.

Debate is still couched in terms of ‘we need to do something about or on behalf of people with mental health difficulties’. This is part of the reason why celebrity spokespeople remain as ‘taking heads by proxy’, in theory members of the group being spoken about but in actuality still occupying the paternal role of requesting that someone do something on behalf of the those poor unfortunates.

In short, we are not seen as people who may have insight or ideas into our position in society because we are not recognised as an actual minority group with specific challenges.

Imagine, if you will, a spokesperson appearing on mainstream news coverage and beginning a sentence with ‘People with mental health difficulties in this country feel that…’ or ‘The effect of this legislation on people with mental health difficulties will be…’

Then imagine BBC Question Time featuring a person representing the ideas of people with mental health difficulties as a specific group in society in the way that, say, Owen Jones represents the ideas of a specific strand of socialist thought or Melanie Philips represents a certain strain of centre right opinion.

It could be concluded that for us as people with mental health difficulties we have not yet passed the point where we are ‘allowed’ by news media to have ideas about our condition and our place in life. We can contribute information about our experience to provide context and colour, but, as yet, we don’t have a strong enough voice to be allowed to make arguments about what it actually means to us as a group of people.

So, what’re we going to do about it?

For an idea of what disabled talking heads might look like, have a look at this archive footage from 1990 (hat tip to @e_lisney on twitter)


Mark Brown is the editor of One in Four Magazine

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3 Responses to Where are the talking heads?

  1. Look at the example of other minority groups. There are already some journalists with mental health problems and some do have influence. We need more. It is all very well trying to influence news agendas from the outside but journalists from other interest groups have helped push their concerns up the agenda because they had all-round media skills. They had the ability to join the news team.

    Journalism is a profession under profession. It is a hard field for anyone to enter, let alone someone with a mental health problem but people do it. Good luck to them.

  2. very good article , interesting, and informative , there will always be constraints, to why who what . Biased agendas , and truth platforms , are not
    and never will be bedfellows the media always directs the story and points of
    The so called experts are non participants in the actual events .

  3. Fascinating article. I have to admit that I had never thought about what it might be like if someone represented mental illness as a disability, as something which as you say is woven through our lives rather than just a problem to be solved. It would be nice to have more “normal” people rather than celebrities represented, and to be heard more often on the media. There do seem to be quite a few stories about mental health issues but very little in the way of informed discussion from people with mental health issues (other than the “colour” types, where the personal experience usually of I got X I felt like Y then I took/went to Z and was cured type comes out)

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