In emails, on blogs and on Twitter, the readers have harshly criticized what they see as the way the article trivializes the treatments and devices that are crucial to their lives or those of their family members. In response to the article’s mention of “high-priced gadgets and disposable accoutrements,” they are using a Twitter hashtag: #notjustagadget.
Over the past few days, I have read much of the criticism, including that on two blogs: Diabetes Mine and A Sweet Life, both of which make points worth considering. I have reread the article itself, many of the reader comments on it, and spoken to the article’s author and to its main editor, Rebecca Corbett.
I’ve also become aware of the key role that several industry-backed patient-advocacy groups have played in heating up the protests.
These are my observations:
1. The article’s headline — “Even Small Medical Advances Can Mean Big Jumps in Bills” — and a few of its language choices could have been better. The headline’s reference to “small advances” immediately set some on edge, its editor and writer strongly believe. (Ms. Rosenthal told me that she found it “tone deaf” and was afraid that it would mislead readers about the article’s overall point.) Before the article went online, and afterwards, Ms. Rosenthal and Ms. Corbett asked for a headline change, but it was tweaked only slightly. And, within the article, the descriptions of some devices, while accurate, might have been written with more awareness of how they would be received.
2. Over all, the article is not guilty of the crimes it’s being accused of – that is, nowhere does the author make light of the disease or the importance of good and innovative treatment. It is well sourced, and based on conversations with both medical experts and those who have the disease. The focus on cost is no surprise; the series, after all, is about the high cost of medical care. “This was not supposed to be about how hard the life of a Type 1 diabetic is – and it definitely is – but rather about the cost issues,” Ms. Rosenthal told me.
What’s more, the article came about because of reader concern over this very subject, Ms. Corbett told me. More than 200 Times readers identified diabetes care as something they hoped Ms. Rosenthal would look at. And the article states, as early as the second paragraph, that devices such as insulin pumps have changed lives for the better: “Such devices, which tailor insulin dosing more precisely to the body’s needs, have transformed the lives of people with Type I diabetes like Ms. Hayley.”
3. JDRF, formerly known as the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, which gets significant funding from industry players and which provides grants for research and lobbies in Washington, sent an email Monday afternoon to Type I patients across the country. It described the organization’s outrage at the article for having made light of advances in diabetes care and it encouraged patients to comment. Other advocacy groups acted similarly.
And it was effective. The initial response to the article was overwhelmingly positive – both in the comments and in email to Ms. Rosenthal. Reaction became much more negative and accusatory after the advocacy groups emailed their members urging them to write to The Times, to light up Twitter and to otherwise respond negatively to the article, Ms. Corbett said. Research by my office backs this up; the tide turned from positive to negative in the comments on Monday afternoon.
I’ve seen this happen before. Once contacted by an advocacy group, people who haven’t already formed an opinion about an article are very likely to read it through a particular lens — if they read it at all before reacting.
4. Articles that delve into medical and other scientific topics are always hard to get right, as they attempt to take esoteric information and translate it for the lay reader. Ms. Corbett told me that, prior to publication, she asked a Times reporter who has Type 1 diabetes — as does the reporter’s mother — to read it for tone and accuracy. In addition, Ms. Rosenthal herself is a medical doctor.
The Times’s correction desk has made one factual correction to the article and another to an accompanying graphic; those corrections have been made online and will appear in print on Sunday.
Even some of the harshest critics of the article say they were gratified to see Type 1 diabetes – and the high cost of living with the disease – get front-page attention in The Times.
Was the treatment of the story perfect in every way? No. Was it essentially sound journalism with an important purpose? I think it clearly was.