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Frames of mental illness and violent crime : perspectives from the courts and the media.
thesisposted on 09.02.2017, 02:22 by Wondemaghen, Meron
Media critics argue that mentally ill offenders are uniquely sensationalised in the press and portrayed within dominant frames of violence. The implications are the ensuing social disadvantages because the mentally ill are publicly feared as being prone to violence. What led to the motivation and scope of this thesis was a lack of analysis about the significance of a major news source regarding these offenders: the courts. A qualitative content analysis of three court cases of violent mentally ill offenders and the media representation of those cases was used as the methodological approach. Interviews with media and court representatives were conducted to obtain contextual insight to the documentary analysis. The methodological approach illustrates that media depictions of mentally ill offenders reflect and draw upon what is argued in court and how their illness is used to mitigate or reject their violent behaviour, once the case goes to court. In court, criminal responsibility for violent crimes is mitigated if an offender suffers from a psychotic-type mental illness rather than non-psychotic because the courts more commonly accept the former type of illness as mitigating violent behaviour. Consequently, media coverage of non-psychotic offenders contains more negative themes because of the way these offenders are portrayed in the courts: as ‘bad’, cold-blooded and fabricating claims of mental impairment. This thesis aims to emphasise the significance of the courts in the press coverage of violent crime and mental illness once the matter is before the courts. The author argues for a more co-operative approach between the courts and the media on issues such as court procedures, laws and decisions regarding mentally ill offenders because how such procedures are understood will influence how the media portrays these offenders. Given the media uses court proceedings as a significant news source when reporting on mentally ill offenders and the issue of ‘crime and mental illness’, it would be advantageous if the courts took a more collaborative approach with journalists to achieve a more accurate and non-stigmatising representation of this issue. The findings in this thesis will contribute to criminological and legal scholarship through detailed analysis of an under-researched and incompletely theorised area, and stimulate broader debates on the legal approach of ‘crime and mental illness’ and the significance of legal concepts on media coverage of the issue.