Healthy Reporting: the Daunting Challenges of Covering Vexing Diseases

When the tragic shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, revealed that Adam Lanza may have Asperger’s Syndrome, it quickly led to articles that focused on links to the disorder and violent behavior, detailed in this piece, this one and this one. Some of this week’s readings focus on that issue as well as the overall challenges of covering the delicate subject of mental illness, which is becoming quite common, especially among young people. We also take a look at how general public health issues are covered through the perspective of guest speaker, Robin Erb, who wrote this article and this one.  An article by former guest speaker David Ropeik discusses the complexities in communicating risks when it comes to public health. Curtis Brainard critiques medical coverage in this article.  As you read these pieces, what questions do you have for your fellow students on how well the media covers mental health and public health? How well do the public health articles convey the important of the piece? Are they engaging, fair and easy to understand? What’s missing? We will also discuss the evolving field of freelancing in this class and the controversy that erupted, as discussed in this piece, over an offer by The Atlantic to pay journalist Nate Thayer absolutely nothing for an article. What’s your reaction to this controversy? Please peruse the submission guidelines on C-Tools that provide examples of what editors are seeking in pitches.


About jhalpert

Julie Halpert is a freelance journalist with more than two decades of experience writing for national publications, including The New York Times, Newsweek,, iVillage,, and AARP Bulletin. She currently contributes regularly to over 25 publications. She is also the co-author of Making Up With Mom ( and has recently started blogging for The Huffington Post. Her subjects have focused on everything from how auto makers will reinvent themselves following bankruptcy, to the viability of various environmentally-friendly technologies and how boomers will reinvent retirement. She also covers parenting and family issues for such magazines as Parents, Family Circle, MORE and Redbook. She has reported on the air for many public radio programs, including The Environment Report, Marketplace and Living on Earth. She also co-teaches an environmental journalism class in the University of Michigan's Program in the Environment and was a founder of The Society of Environmental Journalists.

2 Responses to “Healthy Reporting: the Daunting Challenges of Covering Vexing Diseases”

  1. I thought that this group of articles was very interesting. One thing I noticed was Robin Erb’s imagery and efforts in drawing the reader into the lives of her interview subjects, even when the subject matter became a little gruesome. I really appreciated her ability to get the reader to really emphasize with the people in her stories. That being said, after reading the articles on how journalists represent risk, I wondered whether or not the other side of the story was fairly interpreted in the article on PBB, or if the risk was played up to enhance the drama. By the end of her articles, as a reader, I was thinking “yes, PBB is definitely what is causing problems.” On the other hand, the article on dementia seemed to try to account for several explanations to the problem.

    On another note, I really liked how Erb gave definitions and facts at the end of her articles. I think that makes the subject matter more accessible to the reader.

  2. As many of the cited articles mention, Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome are not “mental illnesses.” This implied association itself in the post was indicative of how the media often peddles misinformation for higher ratings. This is close to my heart, because I remember my dad calling me post Newtown shooting because my younger brother has Asperger’s Syndrome and the fact that lazy media sources rushed to blame something, anything for yet another “senseless,” school shooting was disheartening at best, and irresponsible at worst. One of the editors defended her decision to include that information by saying, “We were told Adam Lanza had Asperger’s from so many people who knew him that it would have been irresponsible to withhold that from readers.” But, why? Since when is Asperger’s associated with violence? Also, I have a lot of issues with Autism Speaks, but I’m glad they confronted this issue head on. However, not all people with Autism need nor want “curing,” in fact we have an English professor at this University who is autistic and is a huge advocate for autism rights. Autism isn’t a mental illness, and it’s not necessarily a “brain developmental problem,” as the NYTimes article asserts. The Adam Lanza/Asperger’s angle only perpetuates the “othering” of people with Autism.

    Furthermore, the new line about gun violence is that we, as a country, need to deal with “mental illness,” as journalists seem to believe this is the common denominator in recent, highly publicized mass shootings. Although I’m all for getting to the root of an issue, placing blame on something as vague as “mental illness,” seems like another lazy “columbine was caused by bullying or by kids listening to Marilyn Manson ” (read Dave Cullen’s excellent book on the subject, Columbine, he researched it for a decade). There is already a huge stigma attached to mental illnesses, and I fear by attaching mass shootings to them will not actually help the cause, but instill more fear of people who suffer from mental illnesses.

    As for the working for free Atlantic article, I think Ta-Neshi Coats, another Atlantic writer offers up an interesting counterpoint from the perspective of minorities historically (and today) facing major barriers to entering journalism.
    Even though he’s one of my favorite writers working today and I find his argument compelling, I think journalism is becoming a “pay-to-play” industry. You have to be able to take unpaid internships, and if you want to freelance abroad you’re going to have to pay your own way. Here’s a great essay about the new barriers for people who don’t have family money trying to break into journalism I have more thoughts on this, but I’ve already babbled for quite a while.

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