Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Words Can Wound: How The Media Describe The Mentally Ill And Disabled

This story was written by advanced reporting students at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, in conjunction with KHN.
NPR correspondent Nina Totenberg threw herself into the center of a word usage debate in February when she asked the lawyer for a man who had lied about receiving a Congressional Medal of Honor, "So, is your client a nut case?"
A paraphrase of the question about Xavier Alvarez also appeared in a text write-up of the story Feb. 22 on NPR's website.
In online comments about that story, listeners criticized Totenberg for insensitivity. “I almost dropped my teeth" at the question, wrote commenter Amy Gasper on the day the story was published. "Was she asking if Alvarez had a history of mental illness? Was she asking his attorney to diagnose a mental illness?
‘Nutcase’ is a pejorative term that I would expect to hear in the rhetoric exchanged by the anchors on Fox, not by a respected journalist.”
In a follow-up blog post by NPR ombudsman Edward Schumacher-Matos, Totenberg was quoted as saying it was not her intent to offend those with mental illness when she asked that question of public defender Jonathan Libby.
And in an email forwarded by her intern, Totenberg later explained: “I used nutcase not in text and not to refer to an insane person. In a question to Mr. Alvarez’[s] lawyer, I used the term to indicate a total flake," who does not have a "close relationship with truth telling.”
So why was there such a strong reaction to the national radio reporter's word choice? And should the media in general be more careful about the language used to describe mental illness and disability?
Read more of Kirsty Groff and May Wildman's  Kaiser Health News article HERE.

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