In 1999, the United States Surgeon General released a report on mental health. The report included an overview of brain research on mental health and mental illness as well as the “breadth, depth, and vibrancy of the mental health field.” It also examined the stigma attached to mental illness in the United States and how that stigma has changed over time.
I came across this report while doing research for the literature review and justification sections of my honors thesis proposal. When I found this report, I was thrilled. It covered areas that I had been struggling to find research in. The only troubling aspect of this discovery was that it was over 15 years old. I figured that, surely, there had to be a similar report out there with just as much credibility, but with more recent information. However, it soon became clear to me that unless the Surgeon General was to release it, no other such report exists.
While reading Michael Schudson’s work, “Political Observatories, databases & news in the emerging ecology of public information,” I kept thinking back to the 1999 report. In the piece, Schudson discusses the future of the news. He examines the role of “political observatories” in journalism. Schudson cites Walter Lippmann’s description of political observatories as “independent, non-partisan, scientific organizations that would be committed to an agenda of research about the political and social world and that would be able to produce it in a form accessible to the competent journalist.”
Political observatories, such as the United States Public Health Service Commissioned Corps (which the Surgeon General is the operational head of), provide material for journalists that allow them gain additional insight into a topic area that they otherwise might not have due to a topic’s complexity.
I agree with Schudson in that political observatories have enriched the field of journalism. The information that political observatories provide allows journalists to give the public a deeper look into a particular story or topic. However, I think there are potential issues that can arise when depending on specific agencies or reports for information.
As I mentioned earlier, the Surgeon General’s report on mental health is over 15 years old. However, mental health has been and continues to be an extremely relevant topic of discussion in the United States, especially pertaining to news. For example, in recent years school shootings have been rampant in the U.S. When covering these stories, it is almost impossible for journalists not to address or remark on the mental health of the shooter. School shootings aren’t the only news events that bring up the topic of mental health. News regarding suicides, for example, is another area in which the topic assuredly is brought up.
This made me curious as to whether or not journalists would continue to use the information provided by the Surgeon General’s report merely because there hasn’t been another report/information as comprehensive as that one in regard to mental health. I found that newspaper articles as recent as 2011 have continued to use the report’s findings. To me, this signals how important journalist’s regard information released by political observatories as dependable sources. However, I feel this has the potential to be somewhat problematic for journalists. It seems that journalists must walk a fine line of using information provided by political observatories, but not be dependent on it.
This would only pose a problem for certain research areas, however. Not all topics evolve like the stigma surrounding mental illness in the United States. Overall, the relationship between journalists and political observatories is an interesting one. I’m curious as to whether the political observatories are aware as to the role they play in modern journalism and whether or not that has any influence on how they decide which particular areas are most crucial to research. However, if political observatories are acting as independent and non-partisan as Lippmann said, journalism should not an influence whatsoever.
Schudson, Michael. “Political observatories, databases & news in the emerging ecology of public information.” Daedalus 139.2 (2010): 100-09.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Mental Health: A Report of the Surgeon General. Rockville, MD: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, SubstanceAbuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Center for Mental Health Services, National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Mental Health, 1999.