No matter what your political view, it is disconcerting when we run across news online that is not factually correct. President Trump refers to such news stories as “fake news” — but also includes in this category any news story he simply doesn’t agree with.
Earlier this month, Psychology Today ran an article titled, “60,000 Psychologists Say Trump Has ‘Serious Mental Illness’.”
The problem with this headline? It wasn’t true. But that didn’t stop the editors at Psychology Today from publishing it on their web site for four consecutive days, before they were called out on the issue on Twitter for its inaccuracy.
Headline writing is as much an art as it is a science. I understand how difficult it can be for headline editors to read a story and ensure that the headline accurately reflects not only the article’s main topic, but also the facts.
The article in question was authored by Suzanne Lachmann, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist in New York. In it, she apparently did not make a claim that “60,000 psychologists say Trump has ‘serious mental illness.’ Instead, she wrote:
The group “Duty to Warn,” founded by influential psychotherapist Dr. John Gartner, has gathered nearly 60,000 signatures on a petition calling for the removal of Donald Trump from office due to “serious mental illness that renders him psychologically incapable of competently discharging the duties of President of the United States.”
When informed that the headline didn’t reflect the content of the article — or the petition itself — the author blocked the person, Jeffrey Guterman, Ph.D., a mental health counselor from Florida:
— Jeffrey Guterman (@JeffreyGuterman) August 11, 2017
Sometime after this notice, the Psychology Today editors decided the original headline actually was untrue. So they changed the headline to, “Petition Declaring Trump Mentally Ill Pushes for Signers,” and added a little editorial note at the bottom of the article noting the change.
What the editors failed to tell their readers is that the content of the article also changed. The author or the editors removed “from mental health professionals” in the first paragraph.
A Fake Petition?
In addition to the factually incorrect headline promoted by Psychology Today, the petition itself leaves a lot to be desired. Unfortunately, like too many articles that don’t critically examine their subject, the article didn’t actually note any issues or concerns with such a petition. Instead it delved into the history of whether it’s okay to diagnose celebrities and other public figures from afar. (The answer has always been, sure, if you want to.)
The petition reads simply enough:
We, the undersigned mental health professionals (please state your degree), believe in our professional judgment that Donald Trump manifests a serious mental illness that renders him psychologically incapable of competently discharging the duties of President of the United States.
The problem? Not every one of the people signing the petition is a mental health professional, much less a psychologist. In fact, since Change.org – where the petition was hosted – has no way of knowing who’s a mental health professional and who’s not, the petition features thousands of non-professional’s “signatures.”
John Gartner, Ph.D. (another Psychology Today contributor) is not exactly neutral on this issue. Especially given his May 4, 2017 article in USA Today entitled, “Donald Trump’s malignant narcissism is toxic: Psychologist,” that begins: “If you take President Trump’s words literally, you have no choice but to conclude that he is psychotic.”
Obviously this is a professional with an axe to grind, who passionately believes in his remote diagnostic abilities.1
I get that there are many people angry at the current political situation in the United States. But promoting questionable petitions through fake news headlines that don’t critically examine the legitimacy (or purpose) of the petition doesn’t help anyone. In fact, such articles simply serve as confirmation that the media is biased against the president.
We can do better than this. We must do better than this in order to retain the trust and respect of our fellow citizens.
For more information
Psychology Today’s article: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/me-we/201708/petition-declaring-trump-mentally-ill-pushes-signers
- If you think remotely diagnosing a person with only publicly-available information results in accurate and reliable diagnosis of a mental disorder, I have a bridge to sell you in Brooklyn. That’s not to say there is no value in remote diagnoses from time to time, but that at least in this particular case, we’ve beaten this horse to death. [↩]