Skip to main content
University of Wisconsin–Madison

Author: Audrey Thibert

Covering mental health, suicide and addiction: A Q&A with Aneri Pattani

A UW red graphic showing a head shot of Aneri Pattani, a UW Center for Journalism Ethics logo and this text: "Covering mental health, suicide and addiction: A Q&A w/ Aneri Pattani, 2023 Journalist in Residence"

Audrey Thibert is a 2023-24 fellow at the Center for Journalism Ethics and an undergraduate student in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Throughout Aneri Pattani’s journalism career, she has had to navigate — and sometimes help reconstruct — the ethical guidelines for reporting on mental health. 

Pattani is a senior correspondent at KFF Health News, a national nonprofit outlet covering U.S. health care and health policy. Her reporting focuses on mental health and addiction issues. Her current project is a year-long investigative series on state and local governments’ use of more than $50 billion in opioid settlement cash.

Pattani graduated from Northeastern University with a degree in journalism, and is currently pursuing her master’s in public health as a Bloomberg Fellow at Johns Hopkins University. As a fellow, Pattani helped create a free, online course for journalists to learn how to responsibly report on the topic of suicide. 

She joined KFF Health News in 2020 and became a senior correspondent in January 2023. Before Pattani joined KFF Health News, she worked for Spotlight PA, a publication that investigates the Pennsylvania state government.

Pattani, who is serving this week as the 2023 UW Center for Journalism Ethics Journalist in Residence, spoke with us about the ethics of mental health and addiction reporting. This interview has been edited for clarity and concision.

In a recent article for the Center, you talked about the importance of language in reporting on suicide. How does this also apply to other areas of health reporting? Is there one area of health reporting where we need to especially focus on language?

Language always matters, but it matters especially when we’re dealing with stigmatized issues. The way we frame these issues is going to affect the way people think about them, their willingness to talk about them, their willingness to see them as a health issue or as a criminal issue or as a personal failing. 

I’ve been doing a lot of addiction reporting this year and sometimes in interviews people will say someone is an ‘addict’ or a ‘junkie’ and I try not to use those words in my writing. If I want to quote that person, I will paraphrase them, or use a different quote and say ‘a person struggling with addiction or ‘a person who uses drugs’ or ‘a person with substance use disorder.’ Those terms really make it about a health issue that this person has. The research is all there. We know addiction is a brain disease, so I want to use the language that reflects that.

How do you make sure you are accurately distilling information for readers to understand complex health policies and landscapes in the U.S?

Two things come to mind. One at the front end, I ask a lot of questions, which journalists are generally good at. I ask the extra question anyway. I also find really good sources to interview — people who themselves get it and can distill what a study is saying simply or can just kind of be real with you. It also helps to make an analogy to something. When I find people who I interview can do that, then I can more easily do it in my writing as well. 

The other thing is on the backend. Once I write about complex health policies or research studies or science, I often will send the paragraph or get one of the sources on the phone and read it to them. I never send them the full story, of course. But to make sure that in simplifying an issue, I haven’t misrepresented anything. Cause that’s always the risk, right? I want to simplify it so people understand, but I don’t want to oversimplify it where now I’ve made it inaccurate. The sources don’t get to tell you they wish it looked different or change their quote. I want to check if it is accurate.

Your reporting also highlights solutions and positive developments. In your opinion, what is the importance of solutions journalism in your work?

It’s something that I am learning to do and trying to do a lot more. I think I could still do a much better job of this. It’s hard and our industry as a whole could, I think, do a better job of this.

Highlighting the problems is really important and you have so much accountability. Investigative reporting comes from saying something is wrong and people need to pay attention. But it’s also incomplete because I think a lot of people read those stories and feel like “Problems are all we see in the headlines. There’s nothing to do. The world’s just going downhill.”  I think to make our reporting more complete, getting at the solutions angle is really important. It makes people actually want to read it, makes people feel like it’s useful to them and makes people feel it’s serving them. 

Solutions journalism doesn’t have to find the solution — if that were the case, we probably wouldn’t be writing about the problem. But it’s sort of like, “Is there a policy step that could be taken?” or “Is there research that shows what works?” or “Is there another country, state  or place that is doing something to address the same problem that’s working in some way?” I think that’s part of the accountability, too, because if there is something that can be done, why aren’t the people in power doing it?

In your reporting on addiction, suicide and other heavy issues, you have to interact with some very vulnerable sources. The way we interact with sources depends on the situation, but what are some things you always keep in mind when it comes to interviewing and communicating with vulnerable sources in your work?

For vulnerable individuals who are sharing their personal story — not elected officials, not PR folks, not company representatives — I make a much bigger point of explaining to them how journalism works. What my story is gonna be, how I will talk to them for a while, but only a little bit will appear in my story. I talk to them about how their name will be out there in my outlet, but it could be reprinted in other places — it might show up in their small town, it might show up on a national outlet. 

I want them to be really informed when we talk about people giving us consent. If someone is really sharing something vulnerable with me, I want them to know a future employer might see this, someone they date in the future might see this. I say, “Are you okay with that? I think you’re really brave to share this story and I think it’s important and I want you to share it with me, but I also wanna lay out the risks.” Because I’ll write the story and move on. And the person can’t. And sometimes it results in people deciding they don’t want to talk to me or pulling out of a story. 

And as a reporter it sucks to go to your editor and say a source doesn’t want to do it anymore. But at least that person is not living with it for the rest of their life. As journalists, we sometimes wrongly assume everyone understands how journalism works.

How do you navigate and protect your own mental health when reporting on heavy topics? What sorts of things do you prioritize in your day-to-day that help your mental health?

I get this question a lot and I always like to preface it with the fact that the topics I write about are really heavy. And when I tell people I cover mental health, suicide and addiction, they assume it’s intense. But I think even though the topics are heavy, the individuals I’m interviewing are really inspiring. Because, generally, I’m talking to people who have been through something terrible in their life, but have come out the other side and want to use it to make a difference and help others. And that is really inspiring. And while there are sad parts to a lot of my conversations, I walk away feeling like humans are so resilient and this is amazing. 

Of course there are still hard things that get to me. Some day-to-day things I really like doing are either going out for a walk or a group workout class. I like doing something where I’m less in my mind because my body is demanding me to pay attention to something else. Otherwise, I’m someone who will think back on the interview and think through what I should be writing or how I felt and just staying in those thoughts for too long. So I like doing something physical that gets me out of it and gets me a little break. 

Also, there are certain topics that are particularly sensitive for me because they touch on my personal life. So when I do stories about college suicide and college mental health, it’s particularly hard for me. So I only do one at a time and I don’t do them back to back. And I’m in a very privileged position where I can make that choice and I can tell my editors I can’t do another follow up right now and I need to do something else.

You often report on policies that affect people in rural places. What is the importance of working with and uplifting local journalism in these types of places when it comes to health reporting?

I think it’s huge. This is my first job where I’ve been a national reporter. Before this, I’ve always been either a state level or a city level reporter. And I think those are the reporters and the outlets that local elected officials and other people in power in those communities know and recognize. And they’re the people who stay after a story. So when you really want to hold someone accountable at a local level, I think local reporters have a unique power to do that. As a national reporter, I can do certain things. I can elevate the conversation to a national level and get people informed on it. But I think a big part of my role, if I want accountability, is to support local reporters doing that work. 

So particularly with the opioid settlement money, it’s being spent differently in every county, every city, every state. So I can highlight a few places in a national story, but if I really want accountability on that money, the better way to do it is by helping local reporters cover in their community where they can stay on it, write an article and call the elected official. I think it’s huge for national newsrooms to support local outlets because those are the people that are most recognized and know what’s gonna make a difference in their community. I think that is a unique power. 

Where do you see the future of addiction/mental health reporting going?

I think mental health reporting has gotten a huge boost in recent years. I think during COVID more people in the public have been talking about mental health and they’ve been talking about mental health in schools and kids. And that has made a lot of editors realize this is an important area of coverage. Same thing with the addiction crisis. We’ve had, unfortunately, really high overdose rates since COVID. More people are paying attention to that. And that has an effect on the media, which then also affects public conversation. I think we’re seeing more importance given to it, which is great. I hope we’ll see a lot of this understanding from reporters that we need to be careful and thoughtful in how we report on these topics. And that because we are shaping the public conversation, it matters how we talk about it. If we’re giving solutions, what language we’re using — all of these things matter. I think there’s been more awareness but I think it needs to grow. 

The Center for Journalism Ethics encourages the highest standards in journalism ethics worldwide. We foster vigorous debate about ethical practices in journalism and provide a resource for producers, consumers and students of journalism. Sign up for our quarterly newsletter here.

A guide to responsible reporting on suicide

Infographic showing "988, Suicide & Crisis Lifeline"

This guide was originally prepared by student fellow Isaac Alter in 2018. It was updated in March 2023 by student fellow Audrey Thibert. 

More than 50 international studies have found that certain types of media coverage can increase the likelihood of suicide contagion, the phenomenon of increased suicide rates after a publicized death by suicide or suicide attempt. Headlines, language, images and even the decision to report on suicide can all have an impact on individuals and the general public. Here we’ve gathered the best resources for journalists and other communicators on covering suicide responsibly. 

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention is an advocacy organization that funds research and educates the public on suicide prevention. The Foundation provides journalists with statistics, fact sheets and resources related to suicide, including the resource 10 tips for reporting on suicide.

Reporting on Suicide

Reporting on Suicide is a collaboration between experts in suicide prevention, public health organizations, schools of journalism, media organizations, journalists and Internet safety experts, and includes these recommendations for journalists. Reporting on Suicide also provides recommendations for online media, examples of how to cover suicide, research related to suicide coverage and information on contacting experts.

Johns Hopkins Training on “Mental Health and Suicide Reporting” 

Johns Hopkins offers a free, online course, for journalists to increase their understanding of how to report on suicide. The course includes three modules with subjects ranging from suicide statistics to best practices and was created by fellow at Johns Hopkins Aneri Pattani and Professor in the Department of Mental Health at Johns Hopkins Holly Wilcox. The entire course, which takes around 7 hours to complete, can be started at any time and completed at any pace. 

World Health Organization 

In 2017, the World Health Organization updated their 2008 booklet with resources for media. The booklet was created as part of a collaboration with the International Association for Suicide Prevention. Produced in partnership with professors, doctors and suicide prevention specialists from all over the world, the booklet contains a number of suggestions for how to report on suicide responsibly, as well as resources for finding reliable information on suicide.

Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSA)

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services agency in charge of public health efforts to improve the behavioral health of the nation, provides a comprehensive list of resources for journalists to include in articles about suicide. Studies show that providing resources in news articles about suicide can help prevent suicide. The list can be found here.

AP Stylebook

The AP Stylebook advises against covering an individual’s suicide, unless it involves a well-known person or unusual circumstances. AP advises journalists not to detail the methods by which an individual died by suicide. When covering suicide, AP recommends using certain language and avoiding phrases like committed suicide or unsuccessful suicide attempt because the verb commit can imply a criminal act and it should not be considered “unsuccessful” if someone survives a suicide attempt. More information and tips can be found in the stylebook, or in these tweets

The AP Stylebook has not released updated advice on covering suicide since 2018. More updated resources can be found in the above resources.

Post-Roe: Journalistic “objectivity” meets the heated issue of abortion

Photo of two plastic figurine doctors positioned to look as if they are walking in the same direction, on a stark white background.
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Audrey Thibert is a 2022-23 fellow at the Center for Journalism Ethics and an undergraduate student in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Like many journalists, NPR’s Sarah McCammon is navigating how to cover abortion in a post-Roe world. Abortion may be an old issue – one that has for a long time gathered a lot of heat – but it’s also one that exists in a new legal and social context. 

“I don’t use ‘baby killers’ and I don’t use ‘forced birth’ because those are both examples of terminology that people who use them feel very strongly about, but it’s not specific and it could be seen as inflammatory,” McCammon said.

The decades-long debate over what constitutes objective journalism is central to this coverage. To accurately set standards for what reporting on abortion should be, journalists must define what objectivity means in the context of the highly controversial and emotional issue of abortion. This will require attention to language use, as well as to the ethics of reporting on an issue that touches both public policy and medical care.  

The need for quality coverage of the issue is also growing. After Roe v. Wade was overturned in June 2022, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists received almost triple the volume of media requests — from about 80 requests per month to about 300. As media coverage increases, it’s crucial that the quality of that coverage does too.

The traditional definition of objective reporting emphasizes the use of neutral language and discourages the use of bias or feelings from the reporter. Often, this means “equal” coverage of both sides of an issue, sometimes resulting in a false equivalence. For Phoebe Petrovic, an investigative reporter at Wisconsin Watch, providing ethical coverage has meant trying to include everyone in the conversation, to achieve a broad spectrum of voices, without at the same time parroting misinformation. 

The Marquette Law School poll shows that, much like the rest of the U.S., the overwhelming majority of Wisconsinites (64%) are in favor of abortion rights. But there is still a 36% margin of people who are in favor of the overturn of Roe. These people, according to Petrovic, are people journalists need to acknowledge and report on.

It is not for me as a journalist to weigh in on what the policy should be. That’s where I absolutely draw the line. I am never gonna tell somebody what I think the policy should be because it’s really not important what I think. To me, that’s what fairness and objectivity is about.

Sarah McGammon, NPR

“I need the people at Wisconsin Right to Life and pro-life Wisconsin to talk to me,” Petrovic said. “But I also need to stand firm and say, what you’re saying is not true, if they’re saying something untrue.”

For example, Petrovic said she must discredit claims from groups that assert there’s never a situation in which an abortion is a life-saving procedure – a claim that is medically inaccurate.

For Kate Connors, director of communications & public affairs at ACOG and a former reporter, many attempts at objectivity have often led to issues of false equivalency – giving equal merit to both sides of an argument when one side relies on factual evidence and the other does not.

“One of our experts at ACOG will be quoted in an article representing one side, and then the other side will be someone from, for example, a state Right to Life organization,” Connors said. “Someone who’s not a doctor, not medically trained, has never treated a patient, has never talked to someone in need of an abortion and only has one goal and one goal only and that’s to ban abortion. They’re quoted as equivalent experts, and they’re simply not.”

But it is still crucial to reach and report on all sides of the issue to understand the nuances of the division.

With this responsibility comes the difficult decisions of what voices to broadcast. Over 600 organizations signed a letter drafted by the Physicians for Reproductive Health to “stop giving airtime to anti-abortion extremists.” 

But in an August blog post, American author and lawyer Jill Filipovic wrote about why this “de-platforming” is not good journalism. She argues that while abortion is a medical and legal issue, there is no escaping that abortion is also a political issue, with very real moral arguments.

“The job of the journalist is not to write the world as it should be. The job of the journalist is to write the world as it is,” Filipovic wrote.

McCammon, too, said it is her goal to portray the world as it is. For her, this means covering abortion as a question of public policy — a system of laws, regulations, actions and funding priorities regarding a topic widely known by a governmental entity or its representatives.

Rather than trying to shape attitudes of public policy, McCammon said journalists should instead provide all the information they can for people to make their own decisions about what the policy should be.

“It is not for me as a journalist to weigh in on what the policy should be,” McCammon said. “That’s where I absolutely draw the line. I am never gonna tell somebody what I think the policy should be because it’s really not important what I think. To me, that’s what fairness and objectivity is about.”

Howard Schweber, professor of political science and legal studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said he thinks there’s plenty of room in objective reporting to point out when people are lying or playing games.

“I do think reporters attempt to report objectively,” Schweber said. “But reporting objectively does not mean parroting what you’re given by partisans. Reporting objectively includes saying this thing the court is doing is radical.”

Key to achieving a high level of fairness, objectivity and truth is the language journalists choose to use.

Seasoned journalists such as McCammon are always cognizant of the language they use in their work. She believes that journalists should opt to use medical language. This approach removes journalists from the emotion of the issue and benefits the audience by spreading factual information.

Connors said the biased language in journalism and throughout society is so internalized that people often don’t even know where it’s coming from, or that they are using biased language.

For example, a common terms such as “late-term abortion” were created to make abortion sound cruel, and is not a medical term, according to Connors.

Many prominent medical organizations, including ACOG, have created language guides for journalists reporting on abortion. These help journalists report accurately and understand the complexities of abortion.

Reporting isn’t the same anymore as it used to be. It’s not just a regurgitation of facts. Reporting is telling stories and helping people make decisions and helping people understand all the things that go into these complex topics. I think if we all were able to apply empathy to the work that we do, the way that reporters have an opportunity to, we’d probably all be better off.

Kate Connors, American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists

Similarly, ACOG, NPR and other organizations do not characterize people as “pro-life” or “pro-choice” because it is a construct. The term “pro-life” implies that the other side is anti-life, and implies both that the other side is anti-life and that fetuses are babies. Instead, ACOG uses “anti-choice.”

Language is just one consideration. For McCammon, there are many other facets of providing the public with information, including research and explanation of differing points of view. This includes painting a picture of consequences and results of certain policies and telling people’s real-life stories.

The overturn of Roe prompted many women to speak about their experiences with abortion. 

Real-life stories can help journalists humanize issues like abortion. While it’s not ethical to try to persuade an audience, Connors sees room for human interest stories in today’s news to help cultivate rationale for the policies.

“Reporting isn’t the same anymore as it used to be,” Connors said. “It’s not just a regurgitation of facts. Reporting is telling stories and helping people make decisions and helping people understand all the things that go into these complex topics. I think if we all were able to apply empathy to the work that we do, the way that reporters have an opportunity to, we’d probably all be better off.”

The legal and social ramifications of sharing these stories, though, have led to increased requests from sources for anonymity.

“We feel it’s important to be able to hear those voices and hear those patient stories firsthand, not have them just talked about in the abstract,” McCammon said. “But we also recognize that in order to do that, sometimes people need to be granted some level of anonymity. I talk to the person about it, about their situation, about why they might or might not want to share their last name.”

McCammon, who has written using different levels of anonymity, always tells interviewees that the more information they are willing to disclose, the more credibility they garner from readers and listeners.

According to a 2020 Pew study, 67% of U.S. adults say the use of anonymous sourcing should only be used in special cases, and 18% say it should never be used. But McCammon and other reporters have to strike a balance between safety and credibility.

“Danger can take a number of different forms,” McCammon said. “Depending on where people live, they could face a variety of repercussions for talking about those experiences.”

And every time anonymity is granted, there must be an editorial conversation to accompany it. NPR always provides a reason for anonymity. For example, in McCammon’s in-depth piece on a woman who got an abortion, the subject was identified as “Elaine, who wants to be identified by her middle name because she fears her family could face backlash.”

This transparency is critical for readers to grasp the gravity of what sharing her story means.

Transparency is also key to the legal language surrounding abortion, as it can be difficult to understand. Instead of trying to guess or interpret the laws incorrectly, journalists should outline what they do and do not know about the legality of abortion, particularly as laws are not uniform across the United States.

As it stands, abortions are banned in at least 13 states, including Wisconsin. Eight of these states do not have exceptions for rape or incest. Ten states including California, Washington and Oregon have state laws that protect abortion. Other states have limited abortion access or are in legal limbo. 

While it might feel like journalists are stuck within the confusing and politicized turmoil of the abortion issue, they do not have to be. By being aware of language and balancing fairness with truth, journalists can lean into the educational function of journalism. Schweber thinks that the post-Roe world can be an opportunity for journalists to step forward and remind the public of journalism’s purpose.

The solution to balancing fairness with truth in writing about abortion might be one that’s applicable to many complex issues: allow discourse, provide transparency and tell the whole story. 

The Center for Journalism Ethics encourages the highest standards in journalism ethics worldwide. We foster vigorous debate about ethical practices in journalism and provide a resource for producers, consumers and students of journalism. Sign up for our quarterly newsletter here.