When Media Lies Hurt: The Destructive Impact of Sloppy Journalism on Real People

(Originally published in USA Today Magazine, July 2016. A few updates were made for reposting to this blog)

It’s safe to say that most people have long since given up on the idea of unquestioning trust for the media. Walter Cronkite died in 2009. Despite vague mistrust, people are vulnerable to the effect that repeatedly hearing things has. Hearing something over and over engrains it in our brains, even if it’s not true. The repeated lie tends to rise to the top when a related topic comes up. This is one reason so many people believe that, for example, violent crime is up all over the country (it’s not) or that we know for sure exactly what schizophrenia is, or what it’s caused by (we don’t).

As a psychotherapist, I see the pain that sloppy journalism creates for real people on a regular basis. I don’t mean transient worry; I mean the possibility of a lifetime of unnecessary anguish inflicted upon people who believe that the information hurled at them by media must be based in truth.

Three examples will suffice to illustrate; you can no doubt generate plenty of examples of your own.

Media Misrepresentation: People considering suicide always give clues about their intention, and thus friends and family have an opportunity to see it coming and intervene.

According to A. Dadoly in the Harvard Health Newsletter (2011), professional estimates are that 30-80% of suicides are impulsive acts, with little or no planning beyond the immediacy of the moment. That means family members could usually not have read the signs, and could not possibly have intervened. Yet, most people believe, because they’ve been told repeatedly, that warning signs are just about always there and thus are tormented with guilt and self-reproach for failing to see something that was, tragically, probably not there.

Media Misrepresentation: Depression is a medical illness that is a lifelong condition. You’ll be on medication forever because there is something wrong with your brain.

The truth is, depression, or “major depressive disorder,” as it is currently labeled, is a construct. It is diagnosed off a checklist of symptoms. Meet enough of the symptoms for a two-week period of time and, bingo, you can be diagnosed, whether that sadness, poor sleep, lack of energy, poor concentration, etc., is due to grief because someone you love has died, or to some other life circumstance…or, perhaps, something medical. Some research indicates that most cases of depression will improve within 7 weeks whether you do anything to treat it or not. Plenty of evidence shows that lifestyle changes such as proper sleep, diet and exercise, plus social supports and a bit of emotional support via therapy, will create improvement in less time and leave you more resilient the next time life throws you a challenge (which, of course, it will). You can find a wealth of scientific research as well as specific steps to apply that research to real life in Stephen Ilardi, MD, Ph.D.’s wonderful 2009 book, The Depression Cure. There’s plenty of other research out there, of course, but for busy readers, Dr. Ilardi has done a masterful job of tying together many researchers’ work and working out a useful process.

Yet millions of people have been sold the lie that their symptoms are evidence of a brain disorder that requires lifelong medication. The medications change the brain, cause all sorts of unpleasant side effects, such as weight gain, loss of sexual interest and/or function, and general apathy towards others, and often cause terrible withdrawal symptoms. They also carry a risk for impulsive acts of self-harm, including suicide, and violence against others. Almost every adolescent and young adult mass killer in the US in the past couple of decades, with the exception of avowed Islamist terrorists, has been on one or more psychiatric drugs, including many antidepressants.

Do these medications help some people? Apparently so, according to them and their doctors. That does not, however, prove that everyone who is sad for more than two weeks has an incurable but manageable brain disease and is “mentally ill.”

Media Misrepresentation: Your gay son or daughter is going to burn in hell just because he/she is LGBT.

This lie is a criticism of many religions, and recently has been part of the background of a television show called “The Real O’Neals.” One part of the plot involves a gay young man whose supposedly Catholic mother is consumed with despair because “her religion teaches her that her son is going to burn in hell because he is gay.” That’s a paraphrase from interviews I’ve read with a star of the show. I have seen many families suffer under this belief. Parents are alienated from their children; children believe that their parents are condemning them; parents and children alike reject their faith. I will address this from my Catholic perspective; you can do the homework on your faith.

The Catholic Church has an international apostolate (a fancy term for an approved special ministry) called Courage, focused entirely on providing spiritual, emotional and social support for LGBT Catholics. Its intention is not to “make them straight,” but to help them live Catholic lives with the orientation they experience. The official Catechism of the Catholic Church isn’t exactly politically correct: like the psychiatrists of just one generation ago, it considers homosexual behavior disordered – but you could say Catholicism (and all orthodox Christianity) says about the same about any sexual activity outside of marriage.

However, the Catechism of the Catholic Church also says: (paragraph 2358):

The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible…They must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. These persons are called to fulfill God’s will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord’s Cross the difficulties they may encounter… (that “uniting to the sacrifice of the Lord’s Cross, is of course, what all Catholics do when, faced with challenges, we talk about “offering it up” – this is not a unique imposition upon GLBT persons).

Paragraph 2359 ends with, “They can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection.” Hmmm. No ineluctable path to hell and damnation there.

One can, however, imagine the pain of a parent who imagines their child is immediately rejected by God. One wishes they were bold enough to seek right guidance.

Our Responsibility

It’s easy, of course, to blame the media. Journalists go to college and seem to take pride in getting the “real story,” or whatever they imagine they’re doing. So why don’t they do their homework? Why present the easy, available tale? Psychologically, they appear to indulge in confirmation bias: the tendency to seek out and focus on things that verify what they already “know.” We consumers of media need to check the facts.

Bad information creates pain and suffering. Don’t assume what you read is the whole truth. Do your research, and turn to people who might have access to information you don’t have. Someone’s peace of mind may be at stake.

Dr. Lori Puterbaugh, LMHC, LMFT, NCC

© 2016

Posts are for information and entertainment purposes only and should not be construed to be therapeutic advice. If you are in need of mental health assistance, please contact a licensed professional in your area.

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