Comparing gendered and generic representations of mental illness in Canadian newspapers: an exploration of the chivalry hypothesis

Abstract

Purpose

The ‘chivalry hypothesis’ posits that woman are treated more compassionately by the media when compared with men. To our knowledge, no research study has explored the chivalry hypothesis as applied to people with mental illness. As such, we set out to compare three types of newspaper articles, those that focus on (1) mental illness generically; (2) a woman with mental illness; and (3) a man with mental illness.

Methods

We conducted a content analysis of 1,168 newspaper articles relating to mental health over 6 months. We obtained articles through media retrieval software using various search terms. We read and coded articles for the presence or absence of themes and content. Frequency counts and proportions were generated for each theme, which were compared across the three types of articles using Chi-square tests.

Results

Generic articles were more positive than articles about individuals. They were significantly more likely to quote mental health experts, and have recovery, inadequate resources, and etiology as themes. Articles that depicted men were significantly more likely to have stigmatizing content and violence as themes. Articles depicting women were significantly more likely to quote mental health experts, discuss mental health interventions, and have recovery and inadequate resources as themes.

Conclusion

The findings lend some support to the chivalry hypothesis, in as much as articles about women were significantly more positive. Articles about men were significantly more negative, though this may be partially accounted for by elevated rates of violent crime in men. Generic articles were the most extensively well informed.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    One example of a story which garnered much press coverage regarding “alleged mental illness” is the suicide of a 14 year old girl, with no history of contact with the mental health treatment system and no official diagnosis (Daron Richardson). Many articles about this girl speculated that she suffered from undiagnosed depression to explain the suicide. Another example included articles mentioning Colonel Gaddafi, who was often in the news as the study period coincided with the Libyan civil war. Some articles speculated that he was mentally ill, and that this explained his actions. We did not formally measure whether articles were based on definitive or alleged mental illness. This was mainly because this was a cloudy distinction which was very difficult to assess. Also, we were interested primarily in portrayals and framing, rather than the assessment of facticity in the articles.

  2. 2.

    Interestingly, Elaine Campione was described by her trial judge as one of society’s “weaker and more vulnerable members who as victims/offenders act out of the expected norm” [27]. Newspaper articles in our study tended to mirror this sentiment, with some notable exceptions. This gives some credence to claims about the ongoing presence of gender stereotypes and chivalry in the judiciary.

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Acknowledgments

We would like to thank Health Canada and the Mental Health Commission of Canada for funding the study. We would like to especially thank Romie Christie and Mike Pietrus from the Commission’s ‘Opening Minds’ anti-stigma initiative for unfailing support throughout the project.

Conflict of interest

On behalf of all authors, the corresponding author states that there is no conflict of interest.

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Correspondence to Rob Whitley.

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Whitley, R., Adeponle, A. & Miller, A.R. Comparing gendered and generic representations of mental illness in Canadian newspapers: an exploration of the chivalry hypothesis. Soc Psychiatry Psychiatr Epidemiol 50, 325–333 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00127-014-0902-4

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Keywords

  • Media
  • Mental illness
  • Gender
  • Canada
  • Chivalry hypothesis
  • Newspaper