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.
When other journalistic templates are involved, the media frequently do a better job. Take, for example, the sub-genre of stories that deal with what it means to live with mental illness. In March 2006, the Globe’s Michael Levenson wrote a fascinating profile of Massachusetts State Senator Bob Antonioni, a long-time depression sufferer who decided to publicize his ailment in a TV advertisement for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Levenson’s story satisfied two perennial requests that mental-health advocates make of the media: it highlighted the scope of the problem in question (nearly 19 million people in the US suffer from depression), and it conveyed that, with proper treatment, mental illness can be managed.
From a media-centric point of view, meanwhile, Levenson’s piece was just a really good read — starting with his lede, which vividly captured the toll Antonioni’s depression used to take. (“One day, he was sitting on the floor of his State House office, crying, when his chief of staff walked in. Other times, he’d stay at home, unable to face the day. When he finally sought treatment, after his brother committed suicide, he wanted to pay his psychiatrist in cash, to avoid a paper trail of checks and insurance forms.”)
The Herald’s ability to cover mental illness with restraint — at least in certain situations — may be even more telling. Yes, the Herald is home to columnist Howie Carr, who’s taken malicious delight (in the paper and on his WRKO-AM radio show) in mocking Marzilli and his diagnosis. Still, a couple weeks ago, the Herald ran a distinctly non-tabloidy feature on the clinical-depression documentary currently being made by Sopranos star Joe Pantoliano, who suffers from the disease. As with the Globe’s Antonioni story, the Herald piece began with the unstated assumption that depression is a serious but treatable medical condition.