Study on media stigmatization of the mentally ill after the Germanwings crash

For their study, the authors retrospectively examined a total of 251 texts from twelve different national print media sources (“Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung,” “Frankfurter Rundschau,” “Süddeutsche Zeitung,” “Die Welt,” “Handelsblatt,” “Der Tagesspiegel,” “BILD-Zeitung,” “die tageszeitung,” “Die Zeit,” “Der Spiegel,” “Focus” and “Stern”) that investigated the cause of the crash during the period from March 24, 2015, to June 30, 2015.
In the process, Conrad von Heydendorff and Harald Dreßing were guided by the empirical-descriptive approach of studies that looked at comparable questions, and they developed the headings “risky reporting” and “explicit stigmatization.” The authors understand “explicit stigmatization” to mean “that stigmatization is clearly apparent in a text and thus can be unmistakably identified by the reader.” For instance, the authors investigated whether the texts contained any indications of “dramatization” or “value judgments,” for example by discrediting mentally ill people as “crazy” or “insane.” A second feature of the study involved analyzing whether a causal link was drawn between mental illness and the criminal action (the intentional crash) without any accompanying scientific reflection, thus resulting in “risky reporting.”
The authors posit that, in addition to the “explicit stigmatization” that is obvious to the reader, there is also a risk that mentally ill people will be stigmatized by the media’s frequent citation of mental illness as the cause of the criminal action. This could create a public perception that mentally ill people are fundamentally dangerous and criminal.
The findings from their text analyses in the segment “risky reporting” clearly show that the majority of the analyzed print media (64.1% of all texts) use the co-pilot’s mental illness as an explanation for the plane crash, without addressing the connections between mental illness and criminality in a more sophisticated scientific way. Just under 40% of all the texts even mentioned the concrete diagnosis of “depression” as the likely reason for the crash.
The authors found features of “explicit stigmatization” in a total of 79 texts (31.5%). The category “metaphorical language/dramatization” (23.5%) was most common here. According to Conrad von Heydendorff and Dreßing, the media’s clear focus on the co-pilot’s mental illness as the reason for the crash produced “risky reporting,” which can have stigmatizing effects for the mentally ill. The potentially stigmatizing effects of “risky reporting” are further reinforced by the significant number of “explicit stigmatization features.”

The authors recommend that journalists follow the recommendations of various institutions, including the World Health Organization, when researching and reporting on mental illness. In particular, they should avoid using language that dramatizes the issue or makes a value judgment. As long as the circumstances of the case are unclear, they say, it would be helpful for the media to be more restrained. In addition, it would be best to include a more thorough discussion about the genesis, characteristics and treatment options of mental illnesses.
The authors recognize the media’s very difficult task of providing fast, thorough information on the one hand while avoiding sensational and stigmatizing reporting on the other. Increased dialogue between the media and the field of psychiatry – using experts’ specialized knowledge – could help them handle this task even better in the future.

von Heydendorff, Steffen Conrad; Dreßing, Harald: Mediale Stigmatisierung psychisch Kranker im Zuge der „Germanwings“-Katastrophe, Media Stigmatization of Mentally Ill Persons After the “Germanwings” Crash. DOI, Psychiatrische Praxis, © Georg Thieme Verlag KG, Stuttgart, New York, ISSN 0303-4259
This publication is now available online:

Prof. Dr. Harald Dreßing
Zentralinstitut für Seelische Gesundheit (Central Institute of Mental Health)
J5, 68159 Mannheim

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