Study: Misleading Coverage of PTSD by The New York Times

Man comforting sad crying womanCoverage of posttraumatic stress (PTSD) in The New York Times may not accurately depict the diagnosis, according to a Drexel University study published in the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry.

The study’s authors say people often rely on the media to educate them about mental health issues, so misleading coverage of PTSD can have far-reaching effects for how society views the condition. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, about 7-8% of the population experiences PTSD at some point in their lives.

PTSD occurs in some people who have faced traumatic events, such as military combat, sexual abuse, or car accidents. Symptoms vary, but often include anxiety and depression, intrusive memories known as flashbacks, and persistent attempts to avoid reminders of the trauma.

PTSD: More Than Just a Soldier’s Condition

Researchers combed through archives of The New York Times between 1980 and 2015, uncovering 871 news articles that mentioned the diagnosis. PTSD was first added to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) in 1980.

The authors of the news articles mentioned military-related trauma in 50.6% of the articles. During the past 10 years, that figure rose to 63.5%. According to the study, past research has shown that most cases of PTSD are not due to military service, with sexual abuse, family violence, rape, and other traumas contributing to a large portion of PTSD cases.

About 30-80% of sexual assault survivors, 23-39% of non-sexual assault survivors, 30-40% of people who experience natural disasters, and 25-33% of car crash victims experience PTSD. Combat veterans experience PTSD at a lower rate of 20%. Previous research suggests 13 times as many civilians as soldiers are affected by PTSD. This coverage may affect public perceptions and legislative action. More than 90% of PTSD legislation proposed between 1989 and 2009 focused on the military.

Negative Framing of PTSD

The study’s authors say coverage of PTSD in The New York Times was often negative, potentially contributing to stigma. More than 16% of articles were about legal cases involving a defendant with PTSD, with an additional 11.5% discussing substance abuse. The researchers believe this type of coverage may spread the notion that people with PTSD are dangerous or violent, and this stigma can deter people with PTSD from seeking treatment.

A majority of the articles noted a traumatic precursor to PTSD, but protective factors against PTSD were almost never mentioned. Only 2.6% of articles mentioned risk and protective factors, and 2.5% mentioned prevention. Just more than 13% mentioned nightmares, while 12.3% mentioned depression and 11.7% mentioned flashbacks.

Deepening Understanding of PTSD

The study’s authors highlight the need to cover more diverse narratives of PTSD. Early interventions can reduce the risk of PTSD in trauma survivors. Coverage of this information might boost awareness of the power of resilience in recovery, while sharing more treatment narratives could inspire hope in people experiencing PTSD.


  1. How common is PTSD? (2013, August 13). Retrieved from
  2. Interventions for the prevention of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in adults after exposure to psychological trauma. (2013, April 2). Retrieved from
  3. New York Times negatively framed PTSD in articles: Study. (2016, May 20). Retrieved from
  4. What the New York Times gets wrong about PTSD. (2016, May 19). Retrieved from

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  • Ulysses


    May 24th, 2016 at 10:29 AM

    Every article that I see is regarding PTSD with soldiers returning home, but why not stress that this is not just a disease that they face? Everyone who has faced a traumatic experience in their lives could be prone to this.

  • Mike


    May 25th, 2016 at 10:26 AM

    I am wondering if the misinformation was intentional or was this just one reporter’s slant on the whole thing. I don’t think that we were being intentionally misled, just implying that this is an issue that many soldiers have to live with versus the general public.

  • Marian


    May 27th, 2016 at 1:52 PM

    Or could it be that this study was simply biased against the NYT and unwilling to admit that there is actually some information in these stories that reach people and encourage them to seek help

  • Simp


    May 28th, 2016 at 1:24 PM

    But you have to admit that this is a really big issue and concern for military families and so you know that when there is interest in a specific subject then they are going to pick up on that and write from that slant. I think that journalists do what they can to sell their work just like anyone else would and so if this is what sells then why not talk about a subject like this form an angle that happens to also interest a whole lot of readers?

  • hester


    May 30th, 2016 at 7:11 AM

    Are we only talking the New York Times here or does it go even deeper than that?

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