Imagine you’re a freelance journalist who’s been asked to write up a report on a disease you have no experience of, or know only a limited amount about. Whether it’s a rare form of cancer or type 1 diabetes, what would you do first? You research. You ask experts. You ask people who are qualified in that field. You ask doctors who are media savvy and know how to speak about that illness in terms that are factually correct, understandable and respectful. You ask charities who work with people and families who are directly affected. You ask, you listen, you learn and you apply that to everything you say, show and print.
Anorexia hit the headlines again yesterday; another tragic story highlighting the devastating consequences of not only eating disorders themselves, but what can happen when effective care packages are not in place, especially after discharge from inpatient services. The reports were published after an inquest into the death of 15-year old Pippa McManus found that a lack of support for her and her family contributed to her death in December 2015.
After living with and being treated for eating disorders, depression and self-harm for three years or more, Pip – as she preferred to be known – left her home and was hit by a train, leaving her family distraught and understandably, desperately seeking answers.
Whenever eating disorders hit the news, I take a deep breath, hoping that after over ten years of campaigning for a better understanding of illnesses like anorexia and how to report on them, that reporters, journalists, producers and editors would take note and do just that. Sadly, they haven’t and I continue to be angered, upset and frustrated by the reports and the negative impact they may have on the very people they are writing about.
I should be writing about the case itself, about Pip and what made her an individual rather than a statistic, about care plans and cohesive pathways, about how families can work together to help their children, or about early intervention and preventative measures… but the truth that became most apparent to me yesterday was the fact that the media STILL don’t report responsibly when it comes to talking about eating disorders, and that has to be addressed before anything else.
What, you might ask, did they do wrong? You may have seen the pictures of Pip’s sunken eyes and hollow cheekbones, gasped at how scarily low her weight was and wondered how even at such a low weight and in a hospital setting, her parents were able to video her exercising in her room in a desperate bid to burn more calories. It was awful and shocking and sad to see how a 15 year old girl could appear so fragile, so skeletal, but that’s the reality of some cases of severe anorexia and news channels and papers think that we need to see that to understand the extent of the problem. What they don’t realise – or do, but refuse to acknowledge – is that these images, videos and numbers are also extremely damaging and often do more harm than good.
Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness – that is a fact. To think that readers or viewers have to see skin taught over bones to illustrate this fact is belittling, unnecessary and for many people who also live with eating disorders, potentially triggering. Here’s a few reasons why:
- Anorexia makes up about 10% of all eating disorders (very few people with EDs are underweight, never mind skeletal, which is what the media always want to show). It’s not representative, so stop it.
- A person can suffer from an eating disorder regardless of their weight and appearance.
- Eating disorders can be extremely competitive – publishing numbers and pictures only fuel this. Stop it.
- People with eating disorders often feel that they are not ill enough, or not worthy of getting help – it’s easy to look at ‘real life’ ‘ill’ people pictures and think, “well I don’t look like that so I must be fine”.
- Some people with eating disorders will actively seek stories covered in the media and use them as ‘thinspiration’ or punishment, telling themselves that they are not as bad and they need to lose more weight.
Also, a person is discharged from hospital, not released – this isn’t prison and mental illness is not a crime. Language is important, guys.
As with any illness, mental or physical, eating disorders must be reported with sensitivity and for that reason, as with any other type of illness, there are guidelines that exist as a resource for members of the media to use when necessary. Beat is the UK’s leading eating disorder charity and has been in existence since 1989 – long enough for all news outlets to be aware of, I think. Their media guidelines can be found here. If you’re a journalist reading this, please read them and save them and share them. Adhere to them if you consider yourself a decent journalist, because this is just sad: