Note: This article was originally published in August 2014 at The Intelligent Review.
Continuing our coverage of the controversies surrounding the Daily Mail, TheIntelligentReview looks at why the paper thinks it can publish stories which could potentially inflame religious tensions or invade privacy without consequence.
As mentioned elsewhere on this site, TheIntelligentReview shares an editorial team with The New Idealist magazine and this post is written by the Editor of The New Idealist.
The next issue of The New Idealist looks at Autism, literally. It’s called ‘The Autism Issue’ and you can read the issue preview here.
Originally, The Autism Issue was going to focus on developments in autism; particularly the impact of a potential prenatal test for autism in an environment where not much is known about those who are autistic. Interviews were subsequently lined up with leading scientists from around the globe and we were confident that the issue would cover this topic in the right level of detail.
Originally, The Autism Issue was going to focus on developments in autism; particularly the impact of a potential prenatal test for autism in an environment where not much is known about those who are autistic.
However, after completing the first interview of the issue with a scientist leading the world’s largest trial of a new blood test for detecting autism in young children, it quickly became clear the clinical language used to describe autistic people by scientists was going to be likely to cause offence/distress to any autistic people reading the issue.
It was decided that a lot more work needed to be done in order to show the more ‘human’ side to autism as a counter to the clinical ‘disease/disorder’ terminology used by the (very influential) scientists The New Idealist was speaking to.
What’s all this got to do with the Daily Mail? Well, in the middle of preparing The Autism Issue the Daily Mail published this.
The sub-heading included the following:
“Researchers studied journals, new stories and legal files for murder cases. They found that 28 per cent of murderers were thought to have suffered from Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)”.
Here’s the twist.
The researchers didn’t meet a single killer; instead their methods included scouring news articles and online databases like Murderpedia for details on murder cases and guessing at those who seemed to display ‘autistic traits’.
As the researchers did not have access to any medical files they could not confirm that any of the killers were autistic; they simply guessed at the findings.
As the researchers did not have access to any medical files they could not confirm that any of the killers’ were autistic; they simply guessed at the findings.
The researchers interpretation of ‘autistic traits’ should also be taken with a pinch of salt as they include “accounts which varied from being described as ‘odd’ to being a loner, with few friends or withdrawn”.
Whilst many autistic people we spoke to whilst making the issue had friends, partners, children and a social life, a lack of understanding of autism by wider society can lead to social isolation in a significant part of the autistic community (something we explore in the issue). However, in the context of this research, the above ‘loner’ description used by the researchers, seems to more accurately match the profile of a psychopath, which presumably is what serial killers by definition are most likely to be.
The above ‘loner’ description used by the researchers, seems to more accurately match the profile of a psychopath, which presumably is what serial killers by definition are most likely to be.
It would be sensible to say that Autism doesn’t kill people, Psychopathy does.
The dubious methods behind this research are much better explained by Dr Elisabeth Hurley who sums up her post on the topic by saying: Every time there is a mass shooting somewhere, people will continue to ask “does that person have autism?”
(Although it should be noted that is not possible to ‘have’ autism as a person is autistic, in the same way you don’t ‘have’ homosexuality; you are homosexual).
The Mail was of course happy to jump on the bandwagon and run a sensationalised headline based on findings from this atrocious piece of ‘research’ causing huge distress in the autistic community The New Idealist was speaking to whilst researching the issue.
The Mail consistently confused the terms ‘thought to have ASD’ with the more definite term ‘with ASD’. I’m sure you can appreciate this is quite a large difference when the term ‘thought to have’ is not in any way substantiated in the first place.
This story took an even darker turn when, just four days after that headline and two days after Dr. Hurley’s ominous warning, Elliot Rodger happened.
It has not yet been confirmed that the killer was autistic and there are conflicting reports on the topic, however many news outlets ran the story of the ‘ASD’ killer
It has not yet been confirmed that the killer was autistic and there are conflicting reports on the topic, however many news outlets ran the story of the ‘ASD’ killer including the normally reasonable BBC who provided an inappropriate guide to ‘Asperger syndrome’ when writing on the topic – yet again linking autism to deadly violence when the general wisdom is that autistic people are more likely to be the victims of crime rather than perpetrators.
Where does the Mail fit in with this new development? An example would be when I spoke to a non-autistic acquaintance on the issue of the BBC article giving so much space to explaining autism in the context of a piece on a mass-murderer. The reply came back:
yeah, but autistic people are more likely to be serial killers aren’t they – it was all over the Mail the other day.
And there is the problem.
Bogus research, leads to bogus stories which are then printed as fact and regurgitated around the world without question.
The tragic irony is that if a similar study using newspaper headlines was conducted in five years’ time, the unsubstantiated research forming the Daily Mail headline would be most likely be incorporated as fact in the new research.
In much the same way George Clooney took issue with the Mail on the basis he felt that their story about his upcoming wedding was at risk of dangerously inflaming racial tensions, I felt this story went too far and filed a complaint with the Press Complaints Commission (in June, before the ‘George’ story).
This complaint was centred around the issue that the Mail reported the ‘serial killer’ research in a way which was dangerously inflammatory, discriminatory against autistic people and ultimately not accurate as the Mail reported the findings as if the killers had been diagnosed with ASD when they hadn’t.
You can read the PPC’s findings here (you might want to prepare yourself for unintelligible doublespeak first).
The good news is the PPC is being scrapped. It is easy to say that no-one will notice that they are gone.
The bad news is the PPC is being replaced by ‘a new structure of independent self-regulation’, otherwise known as the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO). So who now holds the newspaper industry to account? The newspaper industry does.
This is why the Mail thinks it can get away with printing such dangerous stories.
However, it seems that the Mail has been caught in its own mire recently as the recent Hollywood backlash against the paper has caused huge reputational damage to its place as a ‘news’ paper, with many now viewing it as a ‘lowest of the low’ form of tabloid.
That is perhaps the best outcome of all; instead of people reading the Mail’s features as factual ‘news’, readers will now consider them as fictionalised ‘stories’, which is often what they are after all.
By Lydia Andal, Managing Editor, The New Idealist / TheIntelligentReview
For those who want to follow up on ‘The Autism Issue’ and find out what the scientists had to say about prenatal testing for autism along with features which highlight why autism is so misunderstood, you can sign up to be notified when the digital version of the issue is available for free download here.