What Is the Role of Intertextuality in Media Depictions of Mental Illness? Implications for Forensic Psychiatry

Article excerpt

This article offers a practical account of intertextuality and its impacts on media portrayals of violent crimes by persons living with a mental illness. We analysed interrelationships across reports, on the same page, of violent crimes by two different individuals diagnosed with a mental illness. The materials were drawn from a practically complete, prospectively collected national sample of print materials (600 items). Reports utilised complementary understandings of mental illness as either pushing a competent person out of control or as associated with routine incompetence and violent criminal action. Three themes relevant to forensic psychiatrists were identified: patient rights versus public safety; community members--active or passive; and mental illness and agency. Photographs, texts and page layouts, rendered each depiction more threatening, enhancing perceived threats of violence and crime associated with mental illness. An appreciation of such interrelationships would appear to be necessary for more effective engagement with lay understandings of mental illnesses and media reports of violent crimes.


The mass media have been shown to be the public's most important source of information about mental illness (Borinstein, 1992; Philo, Secker, & Platt, 1994) yet those depictions are consistently dominated by representations of violence to self or others and crime (Diefenbach, 1997; Philo, 1996; Rose, 1998; Signorielli, 1989; Wilson, Nairn, Coverdale, et al., 1999a, 1999b). To the extent that the depictions affect expectations and responses of law enforcement officials, justice staff, legislators, and media personnel they are of concern for forensic psychiatry (Corrigan, Watson, Warpinski, et al., 2004; Leudar & Thomas, 2000; Perlin, 1993; Philo, 1996). Media portrayals of violent crimes by individuals with a psychiatric diagnosis draw upon other accounts of similar events and, in doing so, reinforce widespread commonsense about people living with mental illnesses (Nairn & Coverdale, 2005; Taylor & Gunn, 1999).

The majority of studies of media depictions of mental illnesses, as exemplified by Gerbner, Gross, Morgan and Signorielli (1981), and Hyler, Gabbard and Schneider, (1991), have described the portrayals of mental illnesses and classified their information as either accurate or inaccurate. Several authors have argued that it is necessary to augment these findings with more qualitative methods (Blood & Holland, 2004; Corrigan, Watson, Gracia, et al., 2005, Eglin & Hester, 2000; Hall, 2001a). More recent discourse-based analyses have highlighted the constructed nature of the media depictions and drawn attention to the elements (discursive resources--vocabulary, images, metaphors and other tropes) that cued readers to commonsense associations between mental illnesses and unpredictable violence (Nairn, 1999; Wilson et al., 1999a, 1999b). While the word 'cued' in the preceding sentence is readily understood, it does not explain how the commonsense is activated for the reader

Explanations of the interpretive processes implied by the notion of cuing rely on the concept of intertextuality (Fiske, 1987; Hall, 2001b; Lemke, 1985; Zinken, 2003). Definitions or descriptions of intertextuality may differ in detail but the core concept refers to: '[the] accumulation of meanings across different texts, where one image refers to another, or has its meaning altered by being "read" in the context of other images ...' (Hail, 2001b, p. 328). Although that gloss could be read as implying that intertextuality operated independently of the reader, the phrase 'accumulation of meanings' signals the existence of both subjective and public elements. The processes implicated in intertextuality are neither totally external to the reader nor wholly subjective. Each reader brings to the current text or image their personal experiences and the meanings they ascribe those experiences and their acquaintance with, or attention to, public reports and portrayals of similar events and discussions surrounding them. …