November 22, 2022
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Stereotypes, stigmatizing portrayals, and questions about the integrity of people with chronic illness are pervasive. It’s time for that to change.
The media’s portrayal of people with disabilities and chronic illnesses often misses the mark, relying on stereotypes instead of fairly demonstrating the issues we face. Stories involving people with chronic illnesses often reinforce common misconceptions and continue to promote ableism.
Without fair representation of the chronically ill community in the media, and without inclusive, detailed coverage of the key issues we face, misconceptions and stigma take hold.
Consider the following examples of how chronically ill people have been represented in recent news reports:
In 2020, someone wrote to “The Ethicist,” a popular New York Times column, seeking advice about whether it was OK to end a new relationship after the partner revealed he had Crohn’s disease.
In the article, the columnist replied that ending the relationship would be acceptable because the letter writer might be signing up for a lifetime of caregiving — a burden he said you don’t owe to anyone you’re not already committed to.
Of course, nobody should feel forced to stay with a partner, and worrying about whether you can support someone with a chronic illness is understandable. But the published answer seemed to imply that no chronically ill person is worthy of your time or love and that they would be a burden to a relationship. Or at least that’s how many people in the chronically ill community took it.
A few days later, the columnist acknowledged the validity of the complaints he received, publishing an addendum at the end of the article, addressing ableism and the importance of viewing people with disabilities as complete individuals rather than a collection of their symptoms.
Last year, the video headline “Are chronic illness influencers really faking it?” flashed across the breakfast television screens of BBC viewers.
It came ahead of the airing of the network’s documentary, “Sickness and Lies,” with the same focus. Hundreds of people voiced their grievances and shock at this report and the documentary immediately afterward — including those who had been involved in the documentary without realizing the direction it was going to take.
This headline and documentary are examples of how the media often cast doubt on the experiences of chronically ill and disabled people and publish narratives that portray them as villains.
In September 2022, The Daily Mail published “Addicted to being sad.”
The subheadline blared: “Teenage girls with invisible illnesses — known as ‘Spoonies’ — post TikToks of themselves crying or in hospital to generate thousands of likes — as experts raise concerns over internet-induced wave of mass anxiety.”
The article questioned the integrity of people with chronic illness and implied that those who post online about it are either exaggerating their symptoms or claiming to suffer from health conditions they don’t really have.
It suggested that online chronic illness communities can be dangerous, even encouraging patients to “lie to doctors to get the diagnosis they want.”
This is another clear example of the way in which stigmatization, disbelief, scrutiny, mocking, and shaming of chronically ill and disabled people is perpetuated by the media.
Those who were included in the story have spoken out about this and were part of a response article in The Canary, which pointed out the inaccuracies and sensationalism in the Daily Mail piece. A petition to have the article reviewed and taken down is ongoing. You can sign it here.
However upsetting these examples are, there have been some positive articles published about chronic illness and disabilities in recent years that suggest the media is finally taking positive steps forward.
For example, Teen Vogue recently reported on the positive impact that people with chronic illnesses are making via online formats like TikTok, by raising awareness and educating others about their conditions. This article also highlights how the platform can help those living with sometimes isolating conditions to find connections with others.
Earlier this year, SELF published “The Hidden Trauma of My Chronic Illness,” which provided a first-person account of the mental health effects of living with a chronic condition.
I’m also pleased to note that The New York Times recently posted “People Think I’m a Project: The Unique Challenges of Dating with a Chronic Illness,” a well-done piece based on interviews with chronically ill people who discussed their experiences of disclosing their illness to new dating partners.
So, how can we work toward even greater advances when portraying people with chronic illness? The following would be a good start.
We need to campaign for media that’s less dominated by a desire for clicks and more by a drive for accountability, fair representation, and relevant information.
We need to raise awareness about the ways the media often stereotypes people with chronic illnesses, contributing to a lack of balance and diversity.
We also need to educate the media about how this kind of stereotypical representation can negatively affect our lives.
The Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) and the Poynter Institute for Media Studies both point out that mainstream stories rarely feature people with disabilities or chronic illnesses as sources.
What’s more, when they do occur, such stories often use euphemistic language, like “special needs” instead of plainer and more accurate terms like “disability.”
CJR and Poynter also highlighted that even articles that are about chronic illness and disability often focus on age-related illnesses, do not use a chronically ill or disabled person as a source, and are centered around “inspiration porn” or the “overcoming illness/disability” narrative.
The media can ensure more authentic representation and encourage dialogue about the issues that chronically ill people face, not only by seeking our participation when developing stories but also by hiring more disabled journalists.
One example of the need for this is the International Press Standards Organisation’s Clause 12, which prohibits discrimination by the press of any individual on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, or any physical or mental illness or disability.
The clause does not, however, cover discrimination against any group of people. This does nothing to prevent articles that promote discriminatory attitudes against groups of people, such as the disabled, from being published.
For a community that has been silenced and ignored for so long, every report, headline, and story is crucial in shaping public awareness and understanding of chronic illness.
The real issues and voices of chronically ill and disabled people are being reported more frequently, but stereotypical views about these communities are still being published.
We still have a long way to go in our efforts toward changing policy and tackling the problems with media representation — but we can get there with focused efforts.
Medically reviewed on November 22, 2022
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