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Does taking ‘selfies’ indicate mental illness?: The use of sensationalist headlines

by on 2014/04/14

Here at Research the Headlines we have talked a lot about the importance of avoiding sensationalist headlines. It is especially critical that headlines are accurate when they reflect opinion (expert or not) rather than research evidence. As we have also discussed, particular care should be taken when headlines and articles are referring to sensitive issues such as mental illness.

So it is quite disconcerting to wake up to a headline of “Take a lot of selfies? Then you may be MENTALLY ILL: two thirds of patients with body image disorders obsessively take photos of themselves’ in the Daily Mail. On reading the article it becomes apparent that the ‘two thirds’ does not represent a statistical figure from a research study as you would expect from such a headline. It comes from a remark made by a psychiatrist, Dr. David Veale, that two thirds of the patients he sees with body dysmorphic disorder have a compulsion to repeatedly take and post selfies on social network sites. As we have referred to previously better care is needed when writing headlines that refer to mental illness. Why the need to capitalise MENTALLY ILL in this headline other than to be sensationalist?

We have frequently commented on dubious use of headlines in relation to research findings discussed in the news. The Science Media Centre highlighted the importance of accurate headlines in the 10 best practice guidelines they published in connection with the Leveson Inquiry. The 10th guideline states that ‘Headlines should not mislead the reader about a story’s contents’.

Caution about headlines is particularly critical for vulnerable readers such as patients for whom such sensationalist headlines will cause alarm. Various groups, such as the British Psychological Society, made submissions to the Leveson Inquiry that raised concerns about the press coverage given to vulnerable groups, including those with mental health issues and disabilities.

On a positive note, the article goes on to describe body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) and link to the BDD Foundation. This is good practice for encouraging the reader to find out more about the disorder and avenues for gaining support and advice.

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