It is time to pose a simple but important question. So what? What is the practical significance, the meaningfulness of the facts I have presented so far? Media portrayals are inaccurate. They depict people with mental illnesses as different, dangerous, and laughable. They misuse or casually use psychiatric terms. So what? What difference does this make? What are the real-life consequences of these media images of mental illness, and are they sufficient to warrant extended attention to them? The answer to this last question is an unqualified "yes"; the media depictions of mental illness examined in previous chapters do have important and wide-ranging consequences for the lives of those with mental illnesses and for the ways people act toward others with psychiatric disorders.
To begin with, the mass media convey information to the public. Viewers and readers pick up specific knowledge through the media. They learn, for instance, about health issues--AIDS, cancer, addictions--through their media portrayals. They learn about history, about science, about legal issues. Few people had even heard of Munchausen's by proxy, for example, until it became a movie-of-the-week topic. It is probably also true that more people have learned about "Miranda rights" by watching police shows in which suspects are routinely advised of those rights than through any other source. The situation is similar for mental illnesses. People learn about mental illnesses from what they see and hear in the mass media. As noted earlier, the public identifies the mass media as their primary source of information about mental