"There were certainly psychiatrists who ventured incredible explanations," Appelbaum said, although he declined to identify them by name. "I recall one who discussed with certainty the conclusion that the sniper was psychotic, pretending to know things that were going on in the sniper's mind that it was impossible for anyone to have known at that point."
Without anything meaningful to say and sometimes speculating beyond the "factual grounding," the experts, including some psychiatrists, appeared "silly," Appelbaum said. As a result, the public perception of the profession and of mental illness was harmed.
Appelbaum distinguished the sniper incident from other events in which psychiatric experts helped inform the public. Psychiatrists used the Andrea Yates case, in which a Texas woman murdered her five children, as a vehicle to explain postpartum depression and postpartum psychosis.
"I don't think the same happened in [the sniper] case," Appelbaum explained to PT. "Beyond general descriptions of the phenomenon of serial murder, which were mostly offered by the criminologists who were involved, there was little helpful that I saw in the media that our experts were commenting on."
That is partially the result of the selection process the media undertakes. "I don't know," is not the answer reporters are looking for, particularly the 24/7 cable news networks that must fill an enormous amount of time even when there is no breaking story.
"The press--like everyone else--looks for certainty, looks for some sort of definitive statement," Marc Graff, M.D., vice chairperson of the APA's Joint Commission on Public Affairs, told PT. "We all like answers; anxiety and uncertainty are not good for people; and the press, like any other group, looks for answers, and it does its best to find them. And if you say, 'I don't know,' they would like to find someone who can say 'I know.'"
According to Graff, who is also assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California, Los Angeles, School of Medicine, the media also often attract "pseudo-experts," or people who have difficulty resisting the temptation to respond to questions when the data are slim or nonexistent. "It depends on how healthy your narcissism is," Graff said. "I å try to answer those questions which I know something about and å give them the phone numbers of my colleagues who are experts in stuff I know nothing about. And not everyone can do that. Some people are self-proclaimed experts in everything, and I've met a few. And that's a disservice to our profession."
Saul J. Faerstein, M.D., a forensic psychiatrist in Beverly Hills, Calif., who has consulted in some of the nation's most notorious criminal cases, felt the media heat when he served as O.J. Simpson's psychiatrist in 1995. At the time, he resisted requests from nearly every national media outlet.