alexa Contesting the text: Canadian media depictions of the conflation of mental illness and criminality
Social & Political Sciences

Social & Political Sciences

Journal of Mass Communication & Journalism

Author(s): Riley Olstead

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Researchers have identified that portrayals of mentally ill people as violent and criminal are among the most common depictions of mental illness in the popular media (Nunnally 1961, Wahl and Roth 1982, Day and Page 1986). Little attention, however, has been paid to assessing the textual strategies whereby such representations gain currency. This research is interested in investigating the reporting techniques utilised by the popular press including the ways in which power, knowledge and ideology articulates in and through media reports about mental illness. This study draws on Foucault (1972) and van Dijk (1998), to assess data generated out of a discourse analysis of 195 articles from two major Canadian newspapers over the past decade (1990–1999). Findings suggest that the linkages between criminality and mental illness are achieved through the use of ideological, polarised talk that creates distinctions between Us and Them, as well as through a hierarchy of mental illness. Within the hierarchy of illness, three portrayals are explored including the mentally ill criminal, the passive patient and class based illness depiction. A major finding reveals that, throughout the various representations, a central reporting feature is of mentally ill people as simultaneously rational and irrational. Furthermore, varying degrees of agency are afforded mentally ill subjects on class lines, which has implications for the substantiation of responsibility and blame.

This article was published in Riley Olstead and referenced in Journal of Mass Communication & Journalism

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