Magazine Coverage of ADD and ADHD Has Been Largely Informative and Fair, Missouri Journalism Researchers Find

Amanda Hinnant
Amanda Hinnant

Columbia, Mo. (May 28, 2010) — Magazine coverage of Attention Deficit Disorder and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder has been largely informative and fair, though some articles have stigmatized those with the disorder, Missouri School of Journalism researchers found in one of the first studies of how the media portray ADD/ADHD.

ADD and ADHD are the most commonly diagnosed mental disorders among school-age children in the U.S. and symptoms can persist into adulthood. The media play a key role in educating Americans about mental health, with one study finding that twice as many Americans learn about mental disorders from the media than directly from health professionals. Researchers have concluded that many Americans are ill-informed about mental illness yet desire education about the topic.

The current study found that coverage of ADD/ADHD in popular magazines was primarily straightforward and educational, presenting scientific information and/or personal stories that humanized the disorder. In fact, sympathetic treatment through human-interest stories increased in recent years.

“By using the human-interest stories to primarily evoke empathy, the magazines helped to normalize the disorder by making it seem as though it could happen to anyone, rather than creating a separate ‘other’ entity,” wrote the study’s authors.

“By using the human-interest stories to primarily evoke empathy, the magazines helped to normalize the disorder by making it seem as though it could happen to anyone, rather than creating a separate ‘other’ entity,” wrote the study’s authors, Lindsay Ray, a graduate student in magazine journalism editing, and Amanda Hinnant, an assistant professor.

Lindsay Ray
Lindsay Ray

Past research, by contrast, has found that a good deal of media coverage incorrectly portrayed those with mental disorders as either dangerous or childlike and unable to care for themselves. Media coverage also has tended to use labels that dehumanize the mentally ill and set them apart from others.

Noting that the media have the power to either normalize or stigmatize mental disorders, the authors chose ADD and ADHD for study because these disorders have commonly been characterized as overdiagnosed or misdiagnosed.

They found that some articles helped normalize the disorder, for example by comparing taking Ritalin, a frequently prescribed medication for attention deficit disorders, to insulin taken by diabetics. The authors wrote that this “puts ADD and ADHD on par with other general health problems, rather than setting it apart. These findings seem to contradict the literature that most media representations of mental disorders are negative.”

However, one problematic area in the coverage was terminology that implied that those with the disorder could be dangerous. ADD and ADHD are learning disorders and their diagnostic descriptions contain no mention of violence. Researchers found that nearly one of five articles used terms suggesting that those with ADD/ADHD could be a danger to themselves or others. This was not a prominent part of the coverage and did not convey an overall “tone of fear,” the authors said, but some articles wrote that those with ADD/ADHD act violently out of frustration, potentially hurting themselves or doing physical or emotional damage to those around them.

“These findings represent ADD and ADHD as more violent than they actually are, perpetuating the stigma of violence and mental disorders,” wrote the authors. “Medical science journalists should be aware of the tendency to overexaggerate that danger.”

“The stigma of the danger of mental illness probably surrounds these disorders because it is common to emphasize deviance in news stories. Deviance is an attractive part of news, as it adds sensationalism to the article,” the authors added.

In addition, the study found that a few articles showed a “general disdain” for those with ADD and ADHD. One article repeatedly referred to those with the disorder as “victims” and a few articles used pejorative terms such as “screw-up” or “space cadet” – though in most cases such terms were used either by those with the disorder themselves or to describe what misinformed others might say. “The marginalization of people with the disorder is worrisome because it silences an important voice that works to humanize the disorder,” the authors wrote.

Overall, the study concluded that magazine coverage has increasingly normalized the disorder, likely reflecting a change in societal views.

The research was based on content analysis and qualitative thematic analysis of 43 articles randomly selected from among the 234 published from 1985 to late 2008. About two articles each year were selected from magazines including Newsweek, Psychology Today, Better Homes and Gardens, Ladies Home Journal, Time, Science News, Redbook, Forbes, and more than a dozen others.

The authors called for additional research including studies of media coverage of ADD and ADHD prior to 1985 as well as studies of other mental disorders such as Asperger’s Syndrome or depressive disorders which, like ADD/ADHD, have been sometimes referred to as overdiagnosed.

The article was published in the Fall 2009 edition of the Journal of Magazine & New Media Research.

Updated: May 12, 2020

Related Stories