Monday, 26 September 2016

It's Only Words

"Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me". Well, I'm not so sure. This familiar saying came into my mind when pondering this post featuring my thoughts about an old and over-familiar issue: words and diabetes.

I always like to use song titles for my blog posts, so a 1968 Bee-Gees song, Words, covered more recently by Boyzone, fitted well. "It's only words" says the song, but words are powerful things, and people with an incurable condition get quite upset by ill-chosen words that lead others to misunderstand, under-estimate or even stigmatise their illness. Especially if those careless words come from professional journalists who should know better.

It happens regularly in the media, and the UK's mid-market tabloids have a particularly poor record in this respect. The Daily Mail upset a lot of people with diabetes this last Saturday (24th September 2016) with a sensationalist front-page banner advertising a diet to "beat diabetes" and "save your life"


The article was accompanied by a photo of some attractive women, all of a healthy weight and looking fit and well, having apparently beaten diabetes with diet alone. 

Firstly and most predictably, people from the #gbdoc, an online community dominated by Type Ones, rose up in anger at the failure of the headline to differentiate between Type One and Type Two. My own grumpy and fairly obvious tweet (see below) attracted a good number of likes and re-tweets, with people inevitably taking the Mail to task for failing to differentiate in its headline between the types of diabetes and pointing out the impossibility of a cure for Type One.


We Type Ones have good reason to get upset, because we cope every day with a condition which struck us randomly through no fault of our own. And it was nothing to do with what we ate, how much we exercised and how we lived our lives. It was, quite simply, the fickle finger of fate. Yet time and again, we find our condition misunderstood or confused with the more common Type Two. "Gosh, have you still got diabetes?" said a former boss of mine a few years ago as we sat down to eat and I got out my testing meter and insulin pen. I smiled politely and confirmed that yes indeed, I did still have it, because it's incurable. Other Type Ones will have no doubt shared a similar experience.

However, to get upset that people confuse Type One and Type Two is futile and a little unfair. Before I had diabetes, I didn't know the difference, so why should I expect others to do so now?

The real issue is defining people by a medical condition of whatever kind. Words, labels of any type, are blunt and potentially hurtful instruments. To kid people that they can "beat" diabetes with a diet is a dangerous and misleading claim, which can sell newspapers but has very limited scientific credibility as regards Type Two, let alone Type One. The point is that nobody sets out to be ill with any condition of any kind. Our lifestyle, diet and environment make us prone to all sorts of illnesses, some of which are preventable and curable, some of which aren't. All require medical expertise, creative thinking and the help of new technology, and I for one am very grateful to have access to all of those in varying degrees. Simplistic claims of "miracle cures" and sensationalist generalisations about cause and effect help nobody.

Words, especially printed and online words, are powerful and enduring, and all who trade in them should be aware of and sensitive to their power. This recent article in the Daily Telegraph, a newspaper which likes to think of itself as a responsible broadsheet, contained a number of generalisations and inaccuracies, starting with a monumentaly insensitive headline about "24000 diabetics dying" (just stop for a minute and think what a child newly diagnosed with Type One would have thought on seeing that headline). Quite rightly, it attracted criticism from the diabetic community and the author did not respond graciously to that criticism. And the author concerned was their "Science Correspondent", of whom one might reasonably expect a high standard of research and a good measure of attention to detail.

As the song says: "It's only words, and words are all I have to take your heart away" Very true. Take note if you are a journalist, or even just a user of social media.