The coverage of eating disorders within the media is a vital component in spreading awareness and encouraging diagnosis, but do newspaper and magazine features that claim to have their intentions routed in spreading awareness of eating disorders do more harm than good? Saskia Murphy questions the underlying danger in some methods of reporting humanity’s most deadly mental illness.
Seven newspaper and magazine articles rest side by side and appear disturbingly identical in their content. On every page, high resolution photographs reveal emaciated skeletons protruding through grey, waxy skin. Empty eyes stare into the lens of a camera as sunken cheeks detract attention from concave stomachs and pointed collar bones cutting through flesh.
Each article in the gloomy mosaic is routed in the matter of eating disorders. Some offer uplifting anecdotes about recovery. Others offer advice. One tells the harrowing tale of a woman who paid the ultimate price after spending most of her life imprisoned by anorexia nervosa. They all aim to shock.
Features about eating disorders are useful in their original intention. Simply by existing, such articles help to raise awareness about a serious mental illness that claims more lives than any other, and is often misunderstood and disregarded. The reporting of eating disorders is, inarguably, a vital component in the diagnosis and recovery of many affected. But by including photographs of people with eating disorders at their lowest weight and giving details into diet and exercise plans, such articles may carry a hidden agenda that writers and editors themselves are not aware of, and, in some cases, can even prove dangerous to readers who are battling against an eating disorder.
Lucy Evans sits with her sharp elbows resting on the scratched mahogany table in front of her. Slowly circling the rim of a glass tumbler with her fingertip, she silently studies the articles fanned across the table. “They shouldn’t be allowed to do it like this,” she says defiantly, removing her forefinger from the top of her water glass to point at the images on the printed webpages and magazines. “It makes me feel uneasy.” She pauses and stares straight ahead before admitting: “If I was still really ill, it would make me feel as though I’m not thin enough, as though I should work harder.” She pauses and flips the articles over to reveal a scattering of blank pages.
“I would feel as though I should be as thin as the images in front of me.”
Nineteen-year-old Lucy successfully fought a four year battle against anorexia. Although now in her seventh month of recovery, Lucy recognises some media organisations as irresponsible in their approach to reporting eating disorders. She sits back in her chair and hunches her shoulders. Her body language makes her appear timid and vulnerable, but she speaks with a confidence earned from her triumphant fight back to mental and physical wellbeing.
“Anorexia is a very competitive illness,” Lucy ponders thoughtfully, “I used to constantly compare myself to other thin people and I just know from the frame of mind that I used to live my whole life with that this sort of stuff could force me into a relapse. These photographs, the detail into what these people used to eat in order to reach such a low weight and exactly how much exercise it takes to become so thin.” Lucy turns one of the magazine pages back over and quickly skim reads the article. She sits upright in her chair and says: “Like here, ‘I eat one small meal of fish and vegetables a day, that’s about 250 calories’” she reads in an assertive tone. “An anorexic or bulimic person could look at that and think, ‘ok, so that’s what I need to eat to be that thin, I will eat that from now on.’”
Lucy continues: “I know how dangerous this sort of thing can be. I know that I would have used articles like this to help me eat less.” She stares straight ahead with a stern expression branded on her otherwise delicate face and there is an awkward silence as one solitary tear tumbles down her cheek.
She eventually whispers: “Whoever publishes this should be more careful.”
Lucy is not alone in her opinion. Last year the UK’s leading eating disorder charity, beat, expressed its concerns over the way in which journalists report eating disorders by publishing a list of media guidelines. The guidelines explain how certain images that many media organisations include in their reporting of eating disorders can influence the disordered behaviour of people, and that by publishing the lowest weight of an individual, the number can become “a target to aim for.”
Journalist, author and beat media ambassador, Ilona Burton, explains: “The guidelines aim to advise journalists and editors in their methods of reporting eating disorders and warn against specific practices that may cause problems for readers affected by anorexia, bulimia and binge eating. The guidelines explain the dangers behind publishing emaciated images and giving details into the lowest weight of the person the article is discussing.”
As somebody who has recovered from anorexia, twenty-six-year-old Ilona is no stranger to the pressures of the media. During her illness and throughout the process of her recovery, she agreed to meet with reporters in order to speak out about eating disorders and her personal battle. Ilona hoped that by voicing own experiences, she would be able to help others, and has since written a book titled Anorexia: The Essential Guide with the same incentive in mind.
With her voice slightly raised in an attempt to drown out the hum of the pub’s chattering punters, she says: “Often, when I was interviewed, journalists could be so pushy and insensitive. I once gave a photograph to a reporter that I have never shown to anybody before. I look so thin and when I look at that photograph now, it makes me feel sad. My arm looked like a pencil. The reporter looked at it and said ‘have you not got one where you look thinner than that?’ and him saying that made me think I wasn’t ill.”
“What they want is photographs where underwear is hanging off pelvises. And yes, this may provide the shock factor that they (the media) are hoping for but there are two dangers with this method of reporting eating disorders: one is that anorexic and bulimic people reading the articles and seeing the photographs compete to become thinner, the other is that people don’t recognise themselves as ill because they may not be as thin as the people in the photographs. ” She looks around the crowded bar and sighs.
With such devastating consequences, nobody could be blamed for questioning the positive outcome of reporting eating disorders in such detail and wondering what there is to be gained from publishing the horror of some people’s experiences so graphically.
Ilona continues: “I have confronted journalists about what they put in newspapers and magazines. I’ve asked them why they feel the need to report eating disorders this way and their only response is always: ‘this is what sells.’ They say that people want to be shocked but I have never heard anybody saying they like seeing photographs of skeletal people. The media needs to take more responsibility for not just what they say but the way they say it. The torture of mental illness can be expressed in words. You don’t need a picture to explain it and the sooner they realise that, the sooner stories about eating disorders will be positive.”
“There is a problem with this issue because magazines and newspapers can’t be sued for libel and there are no human rights issues to address. There is nothing legal to protect the subjects of these articles and the people who may be reading them, and that’s why the beat guidelines were written. They were written to protect vulnerable people.”
Current independent press regulator, the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), has no guidelines in place for journalists reporting eating disorders although they do include guidelines for reporting suicide at the risk of prompting copycat incidents. Ilona feels this is something that needs to be changed in order to protect those who are most at risk of being influenced by articles on eating disorders that can be detrimental to those reading them.
Ilona says: “I would like to see the PCC writing a set of guidelines based on the beat guidelines. They have guidelines for suicide and in many cases eating disorders are just a slow suicide. These articles are at risk of influencing copycats and can have damaging consequences in the same way that certain reports on suicide have in the past.”
Despite pleas from beat and the families of those affected by eating disorders to consider adding a guideline for reporting the matter, the PCC doesn’t look set to change anything in the future.
Jonathan Collett, the Press Complaints Commission’s Director of Communications, explains: “The most relevant clause with this issue is accuracy. The PCC does outlaw distorted images, but we operate under a system of freedom of expression. This means that as long as the information in the article is correct, we are not in a position to contact editors and tell them what they are doing is wrong. We are aware of the beat charity’s guidelines but there has never been a discussion of plans to implement them into our own.”
With a bleak future ahead for the reporting of eating disorders, those working in the medical profession and alongside charities can do nothing but try to reach out to journalists and editors and ask them to consider the subjects of their articles as human beings, not devices through which they can aim to shock their audiences.
Dr John Fox is a professor in clinical psychology at the University of Manchester and works as a Consultant Clinical Psychologist for eating disorder patients at the Priory Hospital, Cheadle Royal. He feels that the problem with the media and the way it reports eating disorders lies in a general misunderstanding of the severity of the issue.
Dr Fox says: “My advice to any journalist would be to think carefully before approaching the story. People with eating disorders have a bona fide illness that has often developed from past traumas and difficulties. Including photographs of people at their lowest weight is going to encourage competition for people battling against eating disorders and what concerns me is that these images are used in a sensational way.”
In all aspects of reporting, there is an evident conflict between the media’s ambition to circulate stories that affect their readers and the ethical considerations of what is at stake by doing so. And in the case of eating disorders, it is unclear whether there is a blatant disregard for the dangers of specific methods of reporting or simply a misunderstanding of the potential damage that such methods can cause.
The Sun journalist, Ellie Ross, has written a number of articles about eating disorders that include graphic images and the food diaries of those affected. She argues that rather than fuelling illnesses such as anorexia and bulimia, this style of feature helps other sufferers by providing them with positive stories that may encourage them to seek advice.
Ellie says: “Many of the articles I have written have been uplifting, because they talk about recovery from eating disorders. Although we do get a couple of people who say the images can be triggering, many of the comments we receive from readers on our website are positive and congratulatory to the people the features are written about. We include graphic photographs and publish details of their weight because it shows how far they have come and I think this is helpful for people. We are showing them that they can get better.”
In the midst of a culture that questions the humanity of the press and reprimands the lengths some media organisations are prepared to go to in order to encourage readership, sobering words are spoken by a twenty-four-year-old journalist who understands the pressures involved in trying to collect a good story, but also received treatment for an eating disorder which was documented in the press. Jane Moore* provides an honest statement that can be applied to any issue regarding the ethics of journalism:
“The media needs to understand people as human beings, not just as a photograph or a good headline.”
By Saskia Murphy