Today’s Sun front page: sensationalist, dishonest and an example of everything that’s wrong with the press

Today's Sun front page represents the absolute worst of our printed media.

“Is that real?”

Despite the Sun being well known for brash headlines and front pages, this was the most common reaction when I showed people this morning’s front page – “are the Sun really sinking that low?” in other words.

So what’s wrong with it?

Firstly, there is no such thing as ‘mental patients’. There are patients with mental health problems – which range from depression to paranoid schizophrenia – but there are no ‘mental patients’. I suspect the Sun knows this (how could it not?), but has used the term to appeal to the worst elements among its readership, as it did with its “Bonkers Bruno” headline 10 years ago.

As for the scaremongering headline about 1,200 people killed by ‘mental patients’ – this is just that: scaremongering. As the Mirror reports today, people suffering from mental illness are in fact far more likely to fall victim to crime (including violent crime) than those who are well.

The Mirror goes on to say that men with mental illness are seven times more likely to suffer three or more different types of crime than the general public, while Women who suffer from serious mental illness are 10 times more at risk of becoming victims of crime.

The charity Time to Change has been documenting the facts on this for some time now, which I suspect the Sun has willfully chosen to ignore. As the charity puts it:

  • The majority of violent crimes and homicides are committed by people who do not have mental health problems. In fact, 95 per cent of homicides are committed by people who have not been diagnosed with a mental health problem

  • People with mental health problems are more dangerous to themselves than they are to others: 90 per cent of people who die through suicide in the UK are experiencing mental distress

  • In 2011, the total population in England and Wales was 56.1 million. It is estimated that about one in six of the adult population will have a significant mental health problem at any one time (more than 7 million people). Given this number and the 50–70 cases of homicide a year involving people known to have a mental health problem at the time of the murder, clearly the statistics data do not support the sensationalised media coverage about the danger that people with mental health problems present to the community.

  • According to the British Crime Survey, almost half (47 per cent) of the victims of violent crimes believed that their offender was under the influence of alcohol and about 17 per cent believed that the offender was under the influence of drugs. Another survey suggested that about 30 per cent of victims believed that the offender attacked them because they were under the influence of drugs or alcohol. In contrast, only 1 per cent of victims believed that the violent incident happened because the offender had a mental illness.

  • Contrary to popular belief, the incidence of homicide committed by people diagnosed with mental health problems has stayed at a fairly constant level since the 1990s

  • Substance abuse appears to play a role: The prevalence of violence is higher among people who have symptoms of substance abuse (including discharged psychiatric patients and non-patients).

Reporting stories featuring violence and mental health problems

  • stick to the facts – don’t speculate about someone’s mental health being a factor unless the facts are clear
  • consider including contextualising facts about how very few people with mental health problems are violent
  • seek comment from a mental health charity such as Mind or Rethink Mental Illness
  • speak to the perpetrator’s family – often they are victims too with compelling stories to tell

Why not hear more about how it feels to hear stories linking mental health and violence when you have a mental health problem?

Why report the facts, though, when you can shift more copy by scaring people about hoards of dangerous  ‘mental patients’ on the loose?

Today’s Sun front page represents the absolute worst of our printed media. Fortunately, there is some consolation for those who believe strongly in a free press in the fact that the Mirror has, on the same day, gone with a more accurate and reasoned story on mental illness. The real question is how to ensure the facts are heard above all the dishonest sensationalism.

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