Asperger's Syndrome doesn't cause killing

The complainant, Marke Kilkie, felt that a news story about mass killer Elliot Rodger made it sound that the fact he had Asperger’s Syndrome was partly a cause for his murder spree. I don’t think the reporter meant to make the inference, but I agreed that it left the impression of a link. In the wake of these horrible events, the reporting should be much more careful about the use of these details about mental and developmental health. People on the autism spectrum are more likely to be victims of violence.

COMPLAINT

On May 25, 2014, The World This Weekend, the CBC News major weekend radio newscast, ran a story with the latest developments on the inquiry into a mass murder in Santa Barbara, California. A young man had gone on a rampage – stabbing three people and shooting three more before taking his own life. The reporter, Paul Hunter, reported some new details about Elliot Rodger, including the fact that he had Asperger’s Syndrome, a condition that is on the autism spectrum. He stated: “He’d (Elliot Rodger) been in therapy since the age of 8 and may have suffered from Asperger’s syndrome.” You objected to the mention of the fact that he had Asperger’s, because you thought there was an inference that “Asperger’s Syndrome may somehow have pre-disposed the killer to his actions.”

You pointed out that the diagnosis was completely irrelevant and in no way explains why he committed these murders, and does harm by creating a false association:

“CBC’s reference to the potential that Mr. Rodger may have had Asperger’s is no more relevant than whether he may or may not have liked cats but by associating the condition with this mass murderer the story creates a false stereotype that is potentially very damaging to innocent people who happen to have a condition that the medical community no longer even considers a disorder.”

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The Managing Editor of CBC Radio and Television News, Paul Hambleton, responded to your complaint. He told you that there was no intention of “furthering a stereotype” or implying that somehow the Asperger’s had anything to do with Rodger’s killings. He added that this was a follow-up story as new details emerged about the young man. He explained that CBC News practice is to avoid describing people by their disability or mental condition, as well as race, religion or sexual orientation, and that when it is relevant, it is appropriate to include the details in the reporting:

“But there is an exception. And the exception is that we use those descriptions if the information is considered to be central or pertinent to the understanding of the story. That was the case here.”

He argued that it was relevant because the detail had been revealed in a statement by the Rodgers’ family lawyer. If they thought it relevant to report, it was acceptable to include it:

“…his family felt this was important and relevant to publicly mention that he displayed symptoms of a mental health condition that left him withdrawn and socially awkward.”

He added that neither the family nor Mr. Hunter in his report made a direct link between the fact Mr. Rodger had Asperger’s Syndrome and the killings. He also told you that CBC News guidelines recommend that writers should avoid the phrase “suffer from” and that Mr. Hunter should have chosen different language.

REVIEW

As Mr. Hambleton mentioned, CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices has policy about the mention of disability, medical conditions and other descriptors. Its policy on “Respect and absence of prejudice” provides these guidelines:

We are aware of our influence on how minorities or vulnerable groups are perceived. We do not mention national or ethnic origin, colour, religious affiliation, physical characteristics or disabilities, mental illness, sexual orientation or age except when important to an understanding of the subject or when a person is the object of a search and such personal characteristics will facilitate identification.

We avoid generalizations, stereotypes and any degrading or offensive words or images that could feed prejudice or expose people to hatred or contempt.

The operative phrase here is “except when important to an understanding of the subject.” That, of course, will always be a judgment call. The reporter and editor in this case clearly believed that it was relevant. I think they were wrong. I don’t believe that Mr. Hunter’s intent was to make a link between the mass killings and the fact that Mr. Rodger had Asperger’s syndrome. If it was relevant at all it should have been explained in much more detail. The compression of the information in a short news item created the unintended consequence of making the link. This is what the report said:

Paul Hunter: Today fresh details about the suspect, 22 year old Elliot Rodger , who’d written a manifesto and made a video outlining his plans for a massacre because he felt rejected by women.

(Excerpt from Elliot Rodger’s manifesto): I will punish you all for it.

Hunter: He’d been in therapy since the age of 8 and may have suffered from Asperger’s syndrome.

While unintended, the mention of Asperger’s in this context does imply that it is important to understanding motivation or what contributed to the murder. It can easily lead to a generalized impression that people with Asperger’s Syndrome are somehow more pre-disposed to violence. The reality is that the opposite is true. People with Asperger’s Syndrome and people with mental illness are far more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators. And, in fact, Mr. Hambleton was not correct when he referred to it as a medical condition. It is widely understood to be a developmental disorder. The National Institutes of Health provide this definition:

Asperger syndrome (AS) is a developmental disorder. It is an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), one of a distinct group of neurological conditions characterized by a greater or lesser degree of impairment in language and communication skills, as well as repetitive or restrictive patterns of thought and behavior.

It is true the family did mention it, and children with autism sometimes struggle with social interactions and can be socially isolated. This too does not lead to mass rampages. There is a very human need, in the face of this kind of tragedy, to answer the questions of how and why it happened. We struggle to understand the psychology and motivation of the perpetrator. The truth is, there rarely is a satisfying or complete answer.

The other impulse at work here is that reporters report what they know. In a story like this one that gripped public attention, it is logical to want to provide each new detail as it is revealed. All journalism ethics is about weighing competing values – the duty to tell what is known against the harm it may cause. There is a real need to step back for a minute and ask if the detail truly does provide any further understanding, or is there real potential for harm and creating a false connection. To say by reporting this, it led to a discussion of autism and that fostered a greater understanding, is dodging the issue.

There was quite a lot written about the way Elliot Rodger was described. An excellent summary of the issue came from a professor at University of California, Riverside, who is also a Director of an Autism Family Resource Centre. Writing in the Sacramento Bee, Jan Blacher wrote:

Asperger’s syndrome, if this was indeed an accurate diagnosis for Elliot Rodger, had nothing to do with his crimes. There is no simple cause for the type of behavior that took place. There are multiple causes — family, school, personality, mental illness, life events — that interact and result in violence. We need to understand better how our systems of care could have missed the early warning signs.

The reporting around people with disabilities, developmental, physical or mental, is very challenging. CBC policy provides the proper guidance. I suggest CBC News be more rigorous in its application of it. In this case, they missed the mark.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman