Friday, November 30, 2007

Tipping the Scales: Responsible Reporting on Eating Disorders

Reporters search for facts and figures. Stories with shock value are tantamount to striking gold. And that's why when we hear about eating disorders in the news, we get numbers and we get extremes. Two recent examples:

Israeli model Hila Elmalich tragically passed away from anorexia; practically every blog and news outlet made her weight at the time of her death the focal point of their coverage. For a reporter, this number is a crucial piece of information. For most readers, the number instantly distances us from her experience. There is a voyeuristic, freak show effect that washes over us. We shake our heads at the sad reality that someone could make herself so sick. But the truth is that eating disorders are all around us, in every shape and size. We never give details about how much weight we lost when we were suffering with eating disorders for exactly that reason (and to avoid triggering pro-anas, of course). Those numbers are not a measure of our suffering.

A few weeks ago we posted about the Salon story on Diabulimia. Claire noted that the symptoms and behavior described in the article were not new, but the term "diabulimia" certainly was. Reporters quickly latched onto it. Although this eating disordered behavior has long been a problem, it didn't get extensive coverage until it got repackaged with a sexy new name. Check out writer Nancy Matsumoto's account of the personal conflicts she faced when covering diabulimia for People magazine.

If you are a reporter, editor or writer, we encourage you to read these tips on responsible reporting from the National Eating Disorders Association. As a media consumer, remember that every time you see a sensational story about an emaciated anorexic who starved herself to a shocking XX pounds!, there are millions of other people with eating disorders. Their weight might not be so shocking, but their pain is very real.

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