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Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Improving Media Coverage of Veterans and Their Mental Health

New guidelines promote better reporting of veterans' issues, PTSD, and suicide.

Key points

  • Some research shows that media portrayals of veterans are often one-dimensional and based on cliched stereotypes.
  • Researchers have recently released evidence-informed guidelines to help journalists improve their coverage of veterans.
  • This project also involves collaborating with journalism schools and newsrooms to better inform students and journalists about veterans.

The media play a key role in shaping public beliefs, opinions, and attitudes toward social groups. On the one hand, positive, well-rounded portrayals of a social group can lead to social acceptance and social inclusion. On the other hand, negative, stereotypical portrayals can perpetuate stigma, suspicion, prejudice, social distance, and fear.

Veterans in the News

Evidence suggests that military veterans are often framed in a stereotypical and narrow manner in the American media. For example, one recent academic paper notes that media coverage of veterans typically focuses on factors such as trauma, emotional instability, and drugs or alcohol.

Similarly, a US Department of Health and Human Services report found that veterans were sometimes depicted as "ticking time bombs" or "damaged and potentially unstable" in news articles. Other research indicates that veterans are often framed one-dimensionally as "charity cases" or "victims."

Such negative stereotypes may manifest themselves most intensely in media stories about posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in veterans. Indeed, some research indicates that PTSD is often linked to crime and violence, with few stories about rehabilitation, recovery, or treatments.

This situation led the US National Veterans Foundation to state that "the media is the main culprit in fostering negative stereotypes about veterans." This can contribute to a wider climate of suspicion and fear, which can impede the reintegration of veterans into civilian society.

Media Guidelines

As such, it is incumbent upon journalists to ensure that their reporting on veterans, veterans’ issues, and veterans’ mental health is fair, balanced, and accurate. This can be challenging, given that the news industry has experienced a painful retrenchment in recent years, with journalists under intense pressure to create many stories with tight deadlines.

Given this situation, I worked in collaboration with the Canadian Centre of Excellence on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder to create a set of simple, evidence-informed guidelines intending to help journalists report about veterans’ issues, with a focus on mental health and suicide.

These guidelines are based on an ongoing research study and aim to (i) reduce potentially harmful and stereotypical content, (ii) encourage inclusion of protective and educational material, and (iii) diversify coverage to reflect the heterogeneity of veterans and their experience. These guidelines were just released, and are listed below:

  1. Do seek and include remarks and quotes from veterans or figures from veterans' organizations when reporting on any issues related to veterans.
  2. Do seek and include remarks from experts on mental health, PTSD, or suicide (particularly those who specialize in veterans), when reporting these issues.
  3. Do take the opportunity to educate the public (for example, using current statistics) when writing about veterans or veterans’ mental health, PTSD, or suicide.
  4. Do try to include references to successful stories of reintegration, resilience, and mental health recovery when talking about veterans or their mental health.
  5. Do provide help-seeking resources when covering mental health issues, PTSD, or suicide (e.g., helpline numbers or webpage links to support organizations).
  6. Do try to discuss available treatments, interventions, and other services and supports when reporting suicide, PTSD, and other mental health issues.
  7. Don’t draw misleading monocausal explanations for veteran behaviors such as "deployment causes PTSD" or "PTSD causes violent behavior." These complex issues are the result of many interacting factors that journalists should consider.
  8. Don’t use simplistic and nonscientific slang such as "snapped" or "triggered," as these words imply that veterans are constantly on edge and prone to violence.
  9. Don’t go into detail about the suicide method used or the suicide location when covering a veteran's suicide.
  10. Don’t imply that all veterans (or veterans from a specific conflict) have mental illness, PTSD, or issues with suicide, as veterans are a diverse group of people. Many are leading successful and fulfilling lives, free of mental health issues.

Future Work

These guidelines are released in a spirit of friendship and collaboration, having been developed with the input of an advisory committee comprising journalists, veterans, and veterans' family members. The aim is to offer simple, good-faith guidance to journalists, appreciating that many are working in a high-pressure industry.

The next steps in our project involve reaching out to journalism schools, media organizations, and other interested parties to help disseminate and implement the guidelines. It is our hope that all of these efforts will ultimately help foster a climate of social inclusion and respect for our veterans.