Challenging journalists – by Helen May

Helen-May-letterbox-150x150When I see diabetes in a television drama on in a movie, I allow for artistic interpretation and let any inaccuracies blow over. I realise it’s not a great image when someone in a crime series is seen injecting someone with insulin when they are clearly having a hypo but I hope most of the audience are distracted by the fraud or murder or burglary going on and no one is paying enough attention to the medical incident to remember when they see the next person with diabetes shaking, having trouble concentrating and sweating.

However, I am not so forgiving when I see diabetes reported incorrectly by a journalist. Recently, I have see three articles which are inaccurate with their reporting on diabetes.

The first article describes the interesting research into an insulin pill. I could see some value in this: it overcomes needle phobia, removes the need to expose my white belly to inject and taking pills in public is considered more socially acceptable than sticking sharp things into yourself. However, as the needles we use to inject are very small, there is very little physical pain so I am not sure how we can be “spared pain”. I find finger pricks more painful than insulin injections. There are also complications such as neuropathy which can be very painful. But the biggest pain is psychological: the thought of having a chronic disease for the rest of your life; something that you can never forget about; and it increases the risk of heart disease, cancer, etc.

The second article admirably tries to explain the difference between type 1 and type 2 diabetes. This is often missed, although I am seeing improvements. However, when all the people with type 1 are considered, I do not think the statement that it “usually affects children or young adults” is correct. This gives the impression that once we stop being “young adults” at age 25, type 1 diabetes goes away. I know “affects” is only one word and probably one that is missed by many readers. However, it ignores the majority of people who go on to become adults with type 1 diabetes and the families of the children and young adults with the condition who can be greatly affected.

The last article I want to comment on discusses a very serious topic: eating disorders associated with diabetes. When reading this, I was very surprised to learn that synthetic insulin is “the drug makes it easy to put on weight, and almost impossible to lose.” I have met women with diabetes who when younger stopped taking insulin to lose weight and I know that loss of weight is a common symptom of untreated diabetes. However, associating insulin with weight gain is the same as saying “food makes it easy to put on weight”. It’s true, eating can make you fat but that doesn’t mean you should stop eating. I’m concerned that by implying insulin causes weight gain can lead already sensitive people (typically, but not always, young women) to blame diabetes on their poor body image. And, as there is no cure for diabetes, they will feel helpless.

Journalism is a tough job and it is not easy to check all facts or realise a subtle change in wording can change the perception of some information. Big, frightening headlines sell papers but they can also scare vulnerable people.

The National Union of Journalists has a code of ethics which includes “A journalist …Does her/his utmost to correct harmful inaccuracies.” and “Differentiates between fact and opinion.” Unfortunately, these tenets are not always followed and it only takes a knowledge in one area, such as diabetes, to become very suspicious of the media.

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