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Media distortion of the public's perception of recidivism and psychiatric rehabilitation


OBJECTIVE: The public's perception about the success or failure of psychiatric rehabilitation is frequently dependent upon information received through the news media. The primary objective of this report is to present an example of how the news media can distort public perceptions of treatment outcome.

METHOD: Verbatim quotations were presented from a television news series that alleged criminal recidivism by nine patients purportedly treated for various paraphilias at a large, community-based sexual disorders clinic. Brief case vignettes about each of the nine were then reviewed. This allowed for comparisons between what the media had alleged and what had actually occurred.

RESULTS: Two of the nine cases were relatively minor instances of recidivism involving no genital contact, although the media presentation had either failed to report this or had suggested otherwise. A third case of alleged recidivism involved a patient who was evaluated but never actually treated by the clinic in the community. A fourth patient had refused recommended clinic treatment upon prison release, and a fifth patient had been discharged from treatment at the clinic because of noncompliance years before recidivating. Other cases presented contained additional misleading information. None of the nine cases was reported by the media in the context of a balanced approach that included treatment successes. Clinic staff were constrained from responding publicly to correct certain misinformation because of patient-psychiatrist privilege.

CONCLUSIONS: Inaccurate media presentations about psychiatric rehabilitation that ignore treatment successes and focus only on alleged failures do a disservice to patients, mental health workers, and society at large.

For the remainder of this article: by FS Berlin and HM Malin, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, MD 21205.

Media Distortion of the Public's Perception of Recidivism and Psychiatric Rehabilitation by Fred S. Berlin, M.D., Ph.D., and H. Martin Malin, Ph.D.,
American Journal of Psychiatry, 148, 15, pp. 1572-1576, 1991.

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