By the weekend, after last Friday’s post expressing the terror I felt reading headlines regarding death rates, diabetes and COVID-19, I’d moved from scared and sad to angry. Diabetes reports in the media are always fraught, and this was no exception.

I took to Twitter, because it’s as good a place as any to scream into the void and lighten my chest from what was weighing heavily on it. You can read that thread here. Or you can just keep reading this post. I wrote about the processes that I have been involved in for getting a story about research from the lab/researcher’s desk out into the general sphere.

So today, I am going to address a number of different stakeholder groups with some ideas for your consideration.

To communication and media teams writing media releases about diabetes research:

I know that you want your story in the press. Many of you have KPIs to meet, and measures of success are how frequently you get a headline in a well-known publication. I know that you often are the ones trying to make dry numbers and statistics compelling enough to get the attention of health writers and journalists.

But please, please don’t tell half stories. Don’t only present the scary stuff without an explanation of how/what that means. And when you provide explanatory information in the hope that the journo you’re pitching to will pick up your story and run, don’t revert to lazy, over-simplistic explanations that have the potential to stigmatise people with diabetes.

To health writers and journalists:

You have a tough job. I get that. Pages need to be filled, angles found and content that will grab the attention of a news-hungry public must be written. But remember, if you are writing about diabetes, it is highly likely that a lot of people reading what you write are people affected by diabetes. Your words are personal to us. When you talk about ‘diabetics dying’, we see ourselves or our loved ones. Please write with sympathy and consideration. Don’t use language that stigmatises. Don’t use words that make the people you are writing about feel hopeless or expendable. Don’t forget that we are real people and we are scared. Are your words going to scare us more?

To anyone asked to comment from an ‘expert’ perspective. (I am not referring to PWD asked to comment from a lived-experience perspective here, because no one gets to tell you how to talk about how you are feeling. Tone policing PWD is never okay, especially when it comes to having a chance to explain how your emotional wellbeing is going…)

Thank you for trying to break down what it is that is being discussed into a way that makes sense to the masses. If you are asked to be the expert quoted in a media release, ask to see drafts and the final version of the release before it goes out. Consider how your words can be used in an article. It’s unlikely that you will be called for clarification of what you have said, or to elaborate, so be clear, concise, non-stigmatising and factual. Also, and I say this delicately, this isn’t about you. You are providing commentary from a professional perspective on a news story about the people who this IS about . The fallout may be tough, and the topic may be contentious, people may not like what you say, but when that becomes a focus, the story shifts away from the people who really matter here. I am begging you to not do that.

I am frequently asked to provide comment for media releases, sometimes as a spokesperson for the organisation where I work, other times from a lived experience perspective. I always insist on seeing the final draft of the release. And yes, this has been my practise since I was burnt with a quote I’d approved being used out of context and painting my response in a different light to how it was intended. I also insist on seeing the words that will be used to describe me. For me personally, that means no use of the words such as suffered, diabetic, victim, but as PWD we can choose those words to suit ourselves.

I am also more than happy to be the bolshy advocate who clearly lays out my expectations about overall language used. I send out language position statements. I know that comms, media and writers don’t always appreciate this, but I don’t really care. It’s my health condition they are writing about, and the readers will not be as nuanced about those affected with diabetes. If they see something, they take it at face value. I want that value to be accurate and non-judgemental!

And finally, a point on language (because, of course I am going here). Many pieces that have been written in the last week have dehumanised diabetes, and people with diabetes.

Words such as fatalities, patients, sufferers, diabetics, ‘the dead’ have all been used to describe the same thing: people with diabetes who have lost their lives. Break that down even further and more simplistically to this: PEOPLE. People who had friends and family and colleagues and pets. People who had lives and loves and who meant something to others and to themselves.

I refuse to reduce the #LanguageMatters movement to the diabetic/person with diabetes debate, but here…here I think it is actually critical. Because perhaps if ‘people with diabetes’ was used by the media (as language position statements around the world suggest), it might be a little more difficult to divorce from the idea that those numbers, those data, those stats being written about are actually about PEOPLE!  (Of course, PWD – call yourself whatever you want. Because: your diabetes, your rules and #LanguageMatters to us in different ways.)

People. That’s the starting, middle and end point here. Every single person with diabetes deserves to be written and spoken about in a way that is respectful. Those who have lost their lives to this terrible virus shouldn’t be reduced to numbers. Data and statistics are important in helping us understand what is going on and how to shape our response, but not at the expense of the people…