Abstract: Framing Mental Illness: Which Pictures Do the Media Draw and What Do Recipients Perceive?

◆ Magdalena Rosset, Hanover University of Music, Drama and Media
◆ Anja Dittrich, Hanover University of Music, Drama and Media
◆ Miriam Jaspersen, Hanover University of Music, Drama and Media
◆ Eva Baumann, Hanover University of Music, Drama and Media

Mass media are a particularly important source for information about mental health and illness for the public (Borinstein, 1992). However, any media portrayal selects and emphasizes specific aspects of an issue (Entman, 1993). By focusing on “a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation, and/or treatment recommendation” (Entman, 1993, p. 52), journalists create frames that people use and thereby construct reality. The public, meanwhile, recognizes those frames and makes sense of them through their own preexisting models and personal experiences (e.g., Entman et al., 2009; Gamson, 1995). Thus, the media play a significant role regarding how people perceive mental disorders and persons affected (Dorfman et al., 2005; Gamson, 1995). Research has shown that the mass media rather emphasize the dangerousness and peculiarities of people affected and that they often report in the context of violence and crime (Aragones et al., 2014; Coverdale et al., 2002; Klin & Lemish, 2008; McGinty et al., 2014; Slopen et al., 2007).
To understand the public’s communication environment requires not only knowing the existing media frames, but also understanding how members of different target groups perceive the media environment (Wallack & Dorfman, 1996). Therefore, we investigated how German newspapers frame mental illness and how members of the public perceive the media coverage.
Our study focused on the Palatinate region in Germany. We conducted a quantitative content analysis and semi-structured interviews with 44 citizens with different individual connections to mental illness (affected, relatives of patients, not affected). The content analysis included the complete coverage on mental disorders in the year 2018 in three German daily print newspapers (regional, national, tabloid), each with the highest outreach in the Palatinate region. Overall, 478 articles covering mental illness were coded by three trained coders (percent agreement = .90). Media frames were identified by performing a cluster analysis based on the frame elements defined by Entman (1993, pls. see above). This method of media frame analysis – identifying systematic patterns of frame elements – is argued to be more reliable and valid than coding entire frames (Matthes & Kohring, 2008).
We performed a hierarchical cluster analysis using the Ward method and identified five clusters: “Yellow press frame” (n=113), “Crime reporting frame” (n=125), “Elaborated frame” (n=66), “Causation-centered frame” (n=53), and “Solution-oriented frame” (n=121). These frames differ in their thematic focus, whether and to what extent they include causes for mental disorders, solutions, attributions of responsibility, and if negative or positive attributes are used to describe mental disorders.
The media frames partly match the Palatinate citizens’ perceptions of media portrayals who notice a focus on crime and celebrity suicides. At the same time, members of the public demand more background information, which are only provided in the identified third media frame. The media frames will be discussed in the light of the perceived media coverage in more detail. By contrasting these perspectives, challenges and options for the development of health promotion efforts particularly focusing on media advocacy can be delineated (Wallack & Dorfman, 1996).