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Reporters Get New Guidance On Disability Lingo


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In a first, the “journalist’s bible” will include guidance for reporters on how to write about mental illness and conditions like autism.

Officials behind the influential Associated Press Stylebook say they’ve added a new entry for “mental illness.”

The addition to the guide — which is relied upon by reporters at news outlets nationwide — advises journalists not to mention a diagnosis of autism, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia or other mental disorders unless it is germane to the story and properly sourced.

What’s more, when mentioning a person’s mental illness in a news story, the AP Stylebook urges reporters to be as specific as possible about their diagnosis and include examples of symptoms. Journalists are advised to “avoid descriptions that connote pity,” stay away from terms like insane, crazy, nuts or deranged and told not to assume that mental illness is associated with violent crime.

“It is the right time to address how journalists handle questions of mental illness in coverage,” said Kathleen Carroll, executive editor and senior vice president at the AP. “When is such information relevant to a story? Who is an authoritative source for a person’s illness, diagnosis and treatment? These are very delicate issues and this Stylebook entry is intended to help journalists work through them thoughtfully, accurately and fairly.”

Citing the National Institute of Mental Health, autism is one of the conditions listed under mental illness, but the entry includes a note indicating that “many experts consider autism a developmental disorder, not a mental illness.”

The new listing was immediately added to the online version of the AP Stylebook and will be included in the 2013 print edition which is expected to be published this spring, officials said.

While the entry for “mental illness” is new, this is not the first time that the guide has been updated to clarify how journalists should refer to those with various disabilities. In 2008, for example, the manual was updated to indicate that the term “mentally retarded” was no longer acceptable, replacing it with “mentally disabled.”

The AP Stylebook also includes entries for “disabled, handicapped, impaired” and “Asperger’s syndrome.”

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Comments (17 Responses)

  1. Tacitus says:

    I am so happy to hear this. It seems taking a stand against pity and defamation can actually work.

  2. Chandra Chauhan says:

    Just wanted to point out that Autism is NOT a mental Illness…ask your Doctor or the experts, please!!

  3. Cari Watrous says:

    about time!

  4. Dr Mink says:

    I would just like to have them use person first language. I cringe every time I see the term “autistic” in print.

  5. Debby elley says:

    This is a bit worrying. What journalists actually need to know is that autism isn’t a mental illness but a neurological condition and there’s a world of difference. To keep up with the times they need to stop using the abbreviation Asd which stands for autism spectrum disorder and start using Asc – autism spectrum conditions. As an editor of a magazine on autism – Aukids – I argue that this has nothing to do with being right-on and everything to do with being accurate.

  6. Steve Metzer says:

    Under the ADA Amendments of 2008, autism spectrum disorder is a disability protected under the ADA and caused by disorders of brain development. Not all ASDs are necessarily a mental illness but many are.

  7. theSeed says:

    FINALLY! I’d like to also add “wheelchair-bound” and “suffering from” to the stricken list…

  8. Becky Carr says:

    I am not happy with Autism being labeled a mental illness…like it’s something that can be cured with meds or psychiatric therapy. It’s a neurological devopmental disorder and I too think there is a world of difference. It’s true that some people with autism could have a mental illness as well, but it doesn’t follow as a rule and I don’t like for this to be stated in print this way in the AP Stylebook. Things like this can stick for a very long time before they are changed and can cause a lot of misunderstanding and emotional damage. I am a former professional technical writer (now working in real estate) and I am very famliar with stylebooks and their usage.

  9. Jill Gonzalez says:

    thank you for your work in this area because stigma is real and it hurts. Many school-aged children bully special needs children with the same words that they see are used in the media. It is always acceptable to describe the disability as well, for example, “a person who is challenged in the area of behavior” or “a genetic disorder that impairs a person’s ability to function as a typical child.” A good idea, as many people with disabilities use social media, is to put out a question and ask them how they would like their disability to be referred to in the media, you may get some good responses for your AP Stylebook.
    Jill~Special Education Advocate

  10. patm says:

    We continue to kill our field with political correctness. Everyone, including myself, has a little delay when speaking before we choose the word we use.I like mentally challenged. It’s vague enough to offend the least amount of people. Throwing around diagnostic terms when we are not in the business of diagnosing is dangerous. DD, MI, all these initials are easily misinterpreted. The term mentally retarded was probably the most accurate description but it was highjacked through no fault of our field. Now in Illinois we are using intellectual disability- that’s a mouthful- and people just kind of squint at us when we use the term.

  11. Mike Elledge says:

    How about “person with a disability” rather than “disabled person”? I’m surprised this has taken so long to be adopted by main stream media.

  12. A. Noble says:

    I like to use “ability” rather than “disability” whenever possible – we all have abilities!

  13. ASD Mum says:

    Argh!!!!!! Please! Autism is NOT a mental illness! One step forward, two steps back.

  14. Jakki says:

    In addition to appropiate names for mental illness (often referred to as “mental imbalance” instead of illness), I hope eventually all reporters will get rid of the “wheelchair bound”. My daughter uses a wheelchair and that is what allow her to get out and about….she is NOt tied into it (that’s what I think of when I hear the word “bound”) and I imagine if you talked to most folks who use wheelchairs they would feel the same – always the exception of course and that would probably be someone who is new to the world of using a wheelchair.

  15. Betsy says:

    Autism is not a menal illness, it is a neurological disorder. Ignorant media. Are they all idiots?

  16. Andrew Hidas says:

    All the concerns about (the truly outrageous) labeling of autism as a “mental illness” aside, the fact that the AP style book is being updated in this fashion is but one more encouraging step on the road to recognizing the full humanity of people with disabilities. The arc of history is indeed bending in the right direction!

  17. Angela Blackthorne says:

    To the Person who says that Autism is “not a mental illness”, if it’s not then there is no such thing as a mental illness. To try to make that distinction is bigoted, stigmatizing, Ill-informed, and misguided.
    “Mental illnesses refer to disorders generally characterized by dysregulation of mood, thought, and/or behavior, as recognized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, 4th edition, of the American Psychiatric Association (DSM-IV)” Autism is a neuro-chemical psychiatric disorder that begins with the child’s development whose symptoms may disappear in adulthood and may remain until the end of a person’s life, and can be of varying severity, ranging from barely noticeable (subclinical) to severely disabling.
    To the well informed it is known that this also applies to Bipolar disorder. It is also a neuro-chemical brain disorder. Autism is no different and no better than any mental disorder. What you want to do for Autism, in other words, avoid the stigma of mental illness, should be done for all mental disorders with out selectivity.
    I’m Bipolar, many people are not aware that Bipolar disorder is a brain disease, and not a character flaw. You’re not helping the cause of mental disorders activism by trying to remove Autism to it’s own category. Sorry, you’re just adding to stigma against those with mental handicaps.All mental illness is brain disease.
    I’ve spent enough time watching my Asperger’s stepson ripping his hair out with both hands, and banging is head on a wall not to know mental illness when I see it. I’m just glad there is more hope every day

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