Why ‘Mentally-Ill Soldier’ Reporting On Fort Hood Shooting Was Sloppy Journalism

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GPS for the Soul – The Huffington Post
Why ‘Mentally-Ill Soldier’ Reporting On Fort Hood Shooting Was Sloppy Journalism
Why do people with mental health issues stay closeted, quiet, and in so many cases untreated? Well, for an answer, all you had to do was watch news coverage of the shooting Wednesday afternoon at Fort Hood, Texas.

As the chaotic not again, not here storyline began to recede into the background, and the could it be terror/second shooter reports (as many who remained cautiously restrained in the early going had predicted) were discounted, a familiar line of questioning and theorizing began to rise almost inevitably, weaving ever-so-quietly-yet-insistently into the on-air chatter:

The shooter, a soldier, was deranged.

When Lt. Gen. Mark Milley appeared before the cameras late Wednesday night, he shared a variety of facts about the suspect in the case: He was a soldier, he’d served four months in Iraq in 2011, and he was married with family in the Killeen, Texas area. Gen. Milley also revealed the shooter had been under evaluation at Fort Hood for possible PTSD, having complained of a traumatic brain injury. He also had received treatment for anxiety and depression — and was on medication (which has been reported today to be Ambien, a prescription sleeping medication).

Fair enough.

Had Gen. Milley added one more fact — say, that the suspect attended an off-post mosque — I assure you the conversation would have ramped up to ferocious speed along the lines of nexus to terrorism. That, of course, did not happen.

Here’s what did happen, though, resulting in a flurry of anger among advocates for the mentally ill, joined by many working to support veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Lacking that small fact that could have provided a route into MH370-class conjecture on fundamentalism, terrorism and jihad, journalists jumped on the next most tempting morsel in the highly-limited fact pool: PTSD and mental health.

As early as 8:27 p.m., The New York Daily News was off and running, tweeting, “UPDATE: Mentally ill soldier kills 3, self, wounds 16 at Fort Hood.”

Factual? Perhaps. Fair? Not in the least.

Consider what that tweet might have looked like had the suspect been identified, as in the case of the previous Fort Hood shooter, as Muslim. Would the Daily News have tweeted — merely four hours after the shooting — “UPDATE: Muslim soldier kills 3?”

Again, factual, but clearly, that headline would have sent a subtle but unmistakeable message: Muslim. Terrorist. Now, as it turned out in the case of Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, as the Daily News itself noted just this week, “The psychiatrist became a radicalized Muslim while he was serving in the military, unleashing his fury during a 2009 shooting rampage that left 13 dead and 32 injured.”

But that’s absolutely not what the early coverage of the 2009 Fort Hood shooting went. Reporters and editors, wary of accusations of hostility or insensitivity, included the key fact of the accused’s name, but never ran with it toward an explosive suggestion that hey, he’s Muslim, right, so could this shooting be terrorism?

NBC News, back in November of 2009, waited until the tenth paragraph of a story on the shooting to note, “The Associated Press, quoting federal law enforcement officials, said Hasan had come to their attention at least six months ago because of Internet postings that discussed suicide bombings and other threats. The officials said they were still trying to confirm that he was the author.”

The facts, important as we would later learn, are in the story. But they don’t sit in the lede. NBC included other possibly-significant facts, like reports the shooter had been upset over a workplace issue, which could also have proven to be the cause of the shooting spree. Jihad had no business — then — in the lede or the headline, which did not read, “Soldier Who Spoke of Suicide Bombings, Threats, Kills 12.” It was, “Gunman kills 12, wounds 31 at Fort Hood.”

If only the Daily News had been so careful.

The words we choose as journalists matter. So does the emphasis we use, and the significance we assign to facts. Simply knowing that an Army general or any other official shared a “fact” does not make it, in itself, important. If it were, then a headline like, “Chevy driving soldier kills 3” would make sense. Instead, it’s ridiculous. Driving a Chevy could be relevant — even turn out to be the most important fact, explaining what led to a horrific attack. But in the first few hours, when more often than not, most facts turn out to be irrelevant or wrong, it’s not worthy of inclusion in a headline or lede. And including the suspect’s treatment for depression and anxiety, but not his treatment for, say, digestive upset or his need for corrective lenses, serves only to reinforce the stigma of mental illness.

And by giving high prominence to the soldier’s being evaluated (not even diagnosed) for PTSD, it’s a huge disservice to the staggering numbers of American men and women returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with PTSD. The link, by the way, between PTSD and violence is at best shaky, and anyone who tells you a person being treated for depression and anxiety is prone to violence or mass shootings is an idiot. Simple as that.

And yet, the potentially stigma-reinforcing and possibly irrelevant correlation between the shooting and the suspect’s treatment for mental illness and perhaps PTSD wormed its way into cable news coverage and stories written about the killings at Fort Hood:

A soldier suffering from mental health issues killed three people and wounded 16 others at the Fort Hood U.S. Army base in central Texas on Wednesday before turning a gun on himself and committing suicide, the base’s commander said. (Reuters)

A soldier being treated for mental health issues opened fire Wednesday at Fort Hood, killing three people and wounding 16 before fatally shooting himself at the same military base where 13 people died in a 2009 attack, authorities said. The gunman was being evaluated for PTSD, but a diagnosis had not been confirmed, said Lt. Gen. Mark A. Milley, the senior officer on the base. (Dallas Morning News)

A soldier being treated for mental health issues opened fire Wednesday with a semiautomatic weapon at Fort Hood, killing three people and wounding several others before taking his own life as a military policewoman confronted him, officials said. (CBS News)

While the gunman’s motive is still unclear in Wednesday’s deadly incident at the Texas Army base, military officials say he had “mental-health issues.”(Daily Beast)

A soldier who was being evaluated for post-traumatic stress disorder opened fire at Fort Hood on Wednesday, killing three people and wounding 16 before killing himself, the authorities said. The shooting set off a huge police response and shut down the sprawling Army base, the same facility where a deadly rampage by an officer resulted in 13 deaths in 2009. (The New York Times)

Yes, the last link is to the venerable New York Times, prompting Paul Rieckhoff, founder and executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, to tweet: “Correlation does not imply causation. The @NYTimes should know that. And everyone else should take note.”

These kinds of subtle connections, floated out in headlines, ledes and in repeated questions to experts in endless cable news coverage, result in reinforcement of stigma, and a lost opportunity to educate viewers and readers on what mental illness and PTSD really are.

At a recent forum at a forum on mental illness and violence held in Washington last month by the Institute of Medicine, doctors and researchers warned about the ways incidents of mass shooting magnify misunderstanding about mental illness.

“The recent wave of mass shootings, often attributed to individuals with mental illness, should be placed in perspective, said Thomas Insel, M.D., director of the National Institute of Mental Health. “Most people with mental illness are not violent, and most acts of violence are not committed by people with mental illness,” said Insel in his keynote address.

“People with untreated psychotic illness are at increased risk of irrational behavior, including violence, especially directed at family and friends. This usually happens at the onset of illness and before diagnosis or treatment. However, once treatment starts, these people have no higher risk of violence than the general population and are more often victims of crime.”

So yes, perhaps the shooter at Fort Hood did have PTSD. He may also have had any number of issues in his life that may or may not have led him to buy a gun, bring it to base, and kill. And yet news organizations including the Times thought there was enough reason to put a potential diagnosis of PTSD ahead of the facts of the shooting itself. What does that convey to readers?

Again, consider the alternate lede: “A soldier who attended a local mosque opened fire at Fort Hood on Wednesday.” That would never make the cut at the Times. But like the Daily News, mental illness does slip right into the first words of the first sentence, and it implies cause and effect.

That’s just plain sloppy journalism, and with millions of Americans facing mental health issues through the course of their lifetimes, and a generation of American men and women returning from wars suffering from these treatable illnesses and yet often resisting reaching out for help and ending their lives in suicide, we have a responsibility as journalists to be much more careful.

King’s College Choir Reveals VERY Secret Way Of Reaching Unearthly High Notes
If you’ve been wondering how King’s College Choir reaches those incredibly high notes, your curiosity can finally be put to rest.

In their performance of “Miserere Mei Deus, Gregorio Allegri” the choir demonstrates their extremely innovative way of hitting pitches that almost don’t sound human. Don’t worry, they aren’t eunuchs.

“High male voices have been part of the choir sound for more than 500 years,” says Rev. Richard Lloyd Morgan, King’s College Chaplain, in the video above. “After a lengthy consultation process, during which we learned that the surgical solution was surprisingly unpopular with the choral scholars, someone in the chemistry department came up with a simple solution — and now all we need is a very large tank of helium.”

Of course, this was part of an April Fool’s day stunt that had us all laughing and wanting more.

Is Your Voice Worth Elevating?
In all the social media that you follow, how many messages do you see that are actually worth your time? For that matter, how much value is there in what you are posting? There are very different kinds of value that can be derived from all things social. Maybe it’s time to differentiate the value and values being shared!

Sure, it’s fun to see someone’s mom eating her Sunday’s Sundae (OK, I did post this pic of my own mom on my FB account — it’s really fun watching her devour these huge sundaes and equally fun sharing with my friends and family!) Clearly, nothing can be more valuable than Mom, and one aspect of being social is the opportunity to share these kinds of intimate moments that might otherwise be lost.

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However, there are equally meaningful opportunities that being social presents today. Surely you have noticed all the advertising that is swamping the social media world today. For good reason, economically anyway. FastCompany tells us: “Social media has overtaken porn as the number one activity on the web.”

FastCompany goes on to report, along with digital marketing site, DMR, that 80 percent of Twitter and Facebook users say they are more likely to purchase from brands that they follow or connect with on social media. Said differently, social media has become its own center of influence. So, of course advertisers are all over these SM sites.

Don’t Raise Your Voice — Elevate Instead!

What about you? What about me? What can we learn from the impact of social media on influencing other people?

The simple fact is that social media gives each of us the opportunity to raise our voice. The trolls of the Web have been raising their voices for quite some time now. But I’m not talking about raising your voice to give others grief or sow discord with inflammatory postings. Rather, I’m suggesting that social media now gives each of us the opportunity to elevate our voice, to rise above the ordinary, to make a difference worth making.

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If you have a subject that you care about passionately, maybe it’s time to use your social media accounts as a way to share your insights, to engage others in the conversation, and to build a community of people who believe as you do. It’s more than garnering Likes and Shares. It’s about contributing something of value to those who care as you do.

But Social Media Is Still a #TimeVampire, Right?

We all know social media can be a tremendous #TimeVampire, sucking endless amounts of time with very little apparent return on time invested. However, a new generation of “social media ecosystems” are providing each of us with a deeper understanding of social media coupled with revolutionary simplicity yielding tremendous value while avoiding unseen risks.

The problem is clearly not new and the market is beginning to take notice. Desktop or dashboard-like tools are rapidly coming to market to help cut down the time it takes to manage your social media accounts. Klout will suggest a few articles for you based on key word associations and then help Tweet or post your comments directly. HootSuite is optimized for Twitter, but will also let you monitor your feeds from LinkedIn, Google+ and Facebook. It also allows you to search for trending stories, manage your pages from the HootSuite dashboard and can schedule posts automatically for you. New platforms are on the way, combining even more robust research tools with auto-posting to help you find important blogs, articles and postings that match who you are and what you care about.

These and other emerging tools are all steps in the right direction. Some make it easier to find interesting stories to comment on, to manage one or more aspects of your social accounts, and most take at least some of the pain out of the actual posting process, automating the process in the background.

The great promise of these rapidly emerging tools is the ability to help each of us create interesting content, elevate our voices, and contribute to building communities of consequence. In the next few weeks, we’ll be taking a look at how social media can impact a range of things you care about from helping you find your next career move to how you can influence conversations of consequence locally, nationally and even globally.

I’d love to hear from you. What do you think about social media as a platform to elevate conversations, to connect people across communities of consequence, to make a meaningful difference to yourself and others? Please do leave a comment here or drop me an email at Russell (at) russellbishop.com.

If you want more information on how you can apply this kind of reframing to your life and to your job, about a few simple steps that may wind up transforming your life, please download a free chapter from my book, Workarounds That Work. You’ll be glad you did.

You can buy Workarounds That Work here.

Russell Bishop is an educational psychologist, author, executive coach and management consultant based in Santa Barbara, Calif. You can learn more about my work by visiting my website at www.RussellBishop.com. You can contact me by e-mail at Russell (at) russellbishop.com.

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