Research into some mental disorders receives disproportionate media coverage at the expense of other disorders. That’s according to the first systematic study of the way the UK mass media covers mental illness. And in a wake-up call to psychology and its advocates, the analysis found that mental health research stories were biased towards neurobiological aspects of mental illness. They tended to be accompanied by commentary from medical charities, and to neglect psychosocial angles and opinion.
George Szmukler at the Institute of Psychiatry and his colleagues 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 approach of Szmukler and co was to compare rates of coverage for various mental disorders against the disease burden of those disorders as measured by the World Health Organisation (WHO). Disease burden is calculated based on years of life lost due to dying early, and years of life affected by disability and loss of full health.
Providing some background context, the researchers said the UK disease burden of mental disorders is 60 per cent greater than cancer, yet in the period studied the BBC had half as many news stories on mental disorder research as compared with cancer research (in defence of the BBC, cancer is the subject of more research than mental disorders). By contrast, New Scientist had 2.5 times as many mental disorder research stories as cancer research stories.
Comparing coverage of research into various mental disorders, both the BBC and New Scientist tended to neglect depression, which is the mental disorder with the greatest disease burden by far. The BBC also tended to neglect alcoholism, whilst focusing more on drug addiction. It also focused disproportionately more than other conditions on Alzheimer’s Disease and sleep disorders.
There was also a bias in the type of research that received BBC and New Scientist attention. Seventy-five per cent of the BBC’s coverage was on biological research; New Scientist showed a similar trend. “Both sources rarely reported on psychological interventions,” the researchers said: on the BBC it was one per cent of stories; for New Scientist it was 1.5 per cent. The dominant approach of both outlets was to present mental disorders as neurobiological in origin. The researchers don’t know what proportion of research into mental health disorders is actually psychological, but they said “it is unlikely that talking treatments, in particular, would be so poorly represented.”
Most stories on the BBC were accompanied by quotes from commentators intended to provide some context, including from 973 named individuals. 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. Szmukler and his team said that there was a need for organisations like the Mental Health Research Network to examine ways “in which commentators can be made more readily available across the whole spectrum of mental health research.”
The researchers concluded that it was important to study the way the mass media covers mental health research because the media can influence the public’s perception of disorders and their perception of the value of different types of research. In turn, this can affect funding decisions by government. In this respect, it is worrying that psychological research into mental disorders was found to have received so little coverage. On a positive note, the overall quality of the analysed news stories was found to be high and to have a neutral or sympathetic tone.
“Studies of media reporting of research, such as this one, can provide ideas as to how the research community, together with its funders and other supporters, can enhance the range and quality of media coverage,” the researchers said.
Lewison, G., Roe, P., Wentworth, A., and Szmukler, G. (2011). The reporting of mental disorders research in British media. Psychological Medicine, 42 (02), 435-441 DOI: 10.1017/S0033291711001012