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Head case

Media coverage of a State House sex scandal reveals the pitfalls of reporting on mental illness
By ADAM REILLY  |  July 23, 2008

STOP THE INSANITY: Bipolar disorder could have something — or nothing — to do with State Senator Jim Marzilli’s sexual-harassment charges. But the press is making its own diagnoses.

Who is Jim Marzilli, exactly? Is he a predatory letch? Or is he a deeply troubled man who needs to be kept from harassing women — but also from hurting himself?

If you live in Massachusetts and follow the news, you’ve probably pondered this question at some point during the past few months. In April, Marzilli, a Democratic state senator from Arlington, was accused of sexual assault by a woman who claimed he’d inappropriately touched her in an early-morning incident at her home. A month later, Middlesex District Attorney Gerry Leone announced that his office was dropping that case due to insufficient evidence.

But then, on June 3, Marzilli was arrested in Lowell after allegedly harassing four different women over the span of several hours, bombarding them with inappropriate sexual overtures and attempting to grope one’s crotch. Approached by police, he gave a false name, then fled on foot; as officers subdued him with pepper spray inside a parking garage, he wept and said that his “life was over.” And this past week, two more women accused Marzilli of sexual harassment in a suit filed in Middlesex Superior Court.

While Marzilli has said that he won’t seek re-election, he hasn’t been found guilty of any crime. In the court of public opinion, however, he’s already been convicted and sentenced. Calls for his resignation have come from the Boston Herald, the Lowell Sun, the Fitchburg Sentinel & Enterprise, and Boston Globe columnist Joan Vennochi. For its part, the Massachusetts Republican Party has launched a new Web site called Marzilli Watch — motto: “Taxpayers Working for a Senator That’s Not” — aimed at mustering up public outrage that Marzilli, who hasn’t done his job in more than a month, is still receiving a state paycheck.

Which brings us to the reason Marzilli hasn’t been at work. On June 5, the Associated Press reported that Marzilli had entered McLean Hospital, the famed psychiatric facility in Belmont. The Herald subsequently reported that Marzilli had taken a leave from the State Senate and was being treated for symptoms of hypomania, a condition linked to bipolar disorder. And on July 10, the Globe published a piece in which Marzilli’s attorney, Terrence Kennedy, confirmed that his client had received a bipolar diagnosis. Since then, Marzilli’s diagnosis and/or treatment at McLean have been cited in practically every story that’s been done on his situation.

But while the Boston press clearly thinks Marzilli’s mental condition is newsworthy, the question of why it’s important — and how it should be covered — has remained unanswered. Consider the Herald’s hypomania scoop. That piece included a quote from Dr. Roy Perlis, a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital, which suggested that bipolar disorder could help explain why Marzilli acted as he did. (“It can affect all aspects of someone’s behavior,” said Perlis. “A person may make advances that they would ordinarily not make or say things that are inappropriate.”) But the lede — “State Sen. James Marzilli, accused in a string of sexual assaults, could be laying the groundwork for a defense based on a diagnosis of bipolar disorder” — strongly suggested that Marzilli’s diagnosis and treatment were legal tactics, not legitimate medical steps.

Or take the Globe’s July 10 piece. After reporting that his attorney, Kennedy, had confirmed Marzilli’s diagnosis, but wouldn’t discuss when Marzilli was identified as bipolar or what relationship that might have to his alleged crimes, correspondent Christopher Baxter turned to Wendy Murphy, the attorney who represented Marzilli’s first alleged victim before the case was dropped, to fill this interpretive vacuum. She was happy to oblige. “A lot of people have bipolar disorder, and they don’t hurt others,” said Murphy. “And they certainly don’t assault women in a sexual way, especially in such a prolific sexual way in the course of several years. If he thinks that’s somehow justification for his behavior, he’s wrong.”

Of course, neither Kennedy nor Marzilli had actually said that Marzilli’s illness “justified” what he’d done. (In fact, Kennedy has said that he won’t be using an insanity defense.) And Murphy is a lawyer, not a psychologist or psychiatrist. Which made it especially strange that the Globe let her analysis of what bipolar disorder does and doesn’t account for go unchallenged.

The health-and-science approach
It’s tempting to look at the muddled local Marzilli coverage and conclude that mental illness simply throws the Boston press out of its comfort zone. But that would be too sweeping a judgment. After all, the Marzilli story — which involves a mentally ill individual who’s accused of violating legal and ethical strictures — is only one possible framework for covering the subject, and a complicated one at that.

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  Topics: Media -- Dont Quote Me , Health and Fitness , Mental Health , Boston Globe ,  More more >
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election special
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  •   BULL DISCLOSURE  |  October 08, 2008
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 See all articles by: ADAM REILLY

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