Tips for reporting on eating disorders

by Iris Pase
Feb 3, 2021 in Specialized Topics
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Content warning: In this article we discuss some specific aspects of eating disorders that some people might find triggering. If you or someone you know is struggling with disordered eating in any way, see the resources at the bottom of the article. 

In the past year, the public’s mental health has progressively deteriorated as COVID-19 quickly spread worldwide, prompting restrictive lockdowns.

Amid the new isolation and increased financial challenges, people with eating disorders have become particularly vulnerable. According to the Washington Post, in November alone the National Eating Disorders Association saw 72% increase in online chats and a 10% rise in calls compared with last year.

The U.K. has witnessed a similar trend. The country’s leading eating disorder charity, Beat, reported a 140% rise in contact to their helpline services from February to November, 2020.

Even as the number of people experiencing eating disorders increases, stigma and shame still persist. For instance, patients are not immediately treated by doctors specialized in eating disorders or mental health, which often results in support being denied

In this climate, journalists can play a fundamental role in overcoming the stigma and shame attached to eating disorders. 

We asked a few experts to share their advice for anyone reporting on the subject.

[Read more: Mental health tips and resources for journalists]

Educate yourself

According to the U.K.’s National Health Service (NHS), an eating disorder is “an unhealthy attitude to food, which can take over your life and make you ill.” Disordered eating means changing your food habits by either reducing or increasing portions, which is usually accompanied by an obsession with one’s weight or body shape.

The most common types of eating disorders are:

  • Anorexia nervosa, which usually consists in an extreme diet restriction, often to the point of starvation. People suffering from anorexia feel an intense fear of weight gain and are obsessed with controlling their food intake.
  • Bulimia nervosa. A person with bulimia usually consumes huge amounts of food at once (binging) and then tries to get rid of that food by vomiting, abusing laxatives (purging), or over exercising.
  • Binge eating disorders (BED). Similarly to people with bulimia, people with a binge eating disorder eat large quantities of food over a short period of time. Although they’re not likely to try to get rid of the consumed food, they might fast between binges. 
  • Other specified feeding or eating disorder (OSFED). If a person’s symptoms don’t match those of anorexia, bulimia or binge eating disorders, they might be diagnosed with OSFED. This doesn’t mean that their condition is less serious. Actually, other specified feeding or eating disorders account for the highest percentage of eating disorders.

Despite the myths and stigma around them, eating disorders are not only dangerous mental health conditions, but they also have the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric illness. Anorexia alone has an estimated mortality rate of around 10%.

Most reporting is currently centered around anorexia but there are other eating disorders that need to be covered. “The one thing that we would love to see at Beat is actually widening the sorts of eating disorders that are talked about,” Rebecca Wilgress, head of communications at Beat, tells IJNet. “Binge eating disorder is one of the most common eating disorders. However, I believe it was around 5-6% of our coverage in the last 12 months.”

Given the sensitive nature of the issue, it’s important to read and research extensively about the subject when reporting on it. Having more knowledge will help you craft better content, connect with your interviewees and deliver a fairer coverage that could inspire people to seek help. 

Use accurate terminology

Part of your preparation should include acquainting yourself with accurate and respectful language for reporting on these particular mental health illnesses.

For instance, terms like “bulimic” and “anorexic” are labels that define the person by the diagnosis or the symptoms they experience. As such, they should be avoided and replaced by expressions like “people with bulimia” which shift the attention from the disorder to the individual. 

Wilgress also stresses the importance of accurate wording in everyday journalism. “We need to stop misusing the word “binge,’’' she says. “We use it to describe watching a few hours of telly, whereas a binge or somebody with binge eating disorder is incomparable to that.”

Avoid trivializing disordered eating habits with neologisms such as “brideorexia,” meaning women losing weight in unhealthy ways in advance of their wedding, or “drunkorexia,” referring to someone who restricts calories to consume alcohol. These words downplay the seriousness of eating disorders by trying to make it look trivial or fashionable.

“[Drunkorexia] just doesn't show the severity of frequent alcohol abuse within an eating disorder,” Wilgress says.

[Read more: Mental Health and Journalism Toolkit]

Do not give too many details

Any mention of specific weights, amounts eaten, or exercise habits can have serious consequences on people with eating disorders. As explained in Beat’s media guidelines, “The competitive nature of eating disordered thinking would mean such a number would become a target to aim for.” 

Specifying weights also over-emphasizes one aspect of disordered eating, and can also result in people thinking they’re not “ill enough” to seek help because they haven’t reached a particular number on the scale. 

“We know people with bulimia are often at a normal weight, or even a larger weight. Somebody with binge eating disorder might also be at a larger weight,” Wilgress says. “These illnesses need to be taken as seriously as any other eating disorder.”

Be compassionate and empathetic

“There needs to be more of a narrative of actual lived experience,” says Gemma Oaten, manager of British eating disorder charity SEED.

While numbers and statistics are incredibly important to understand the phenomenon, Oaten suggests prioritizing a more personal approach. “A lot of people still don’t understand why one develops an eating disorder,” she says. “We need to talk about the daily impact of eating disorders on the people affected and their families.”

Empathy is critical when interviewing people as case studies. Ask questions about the person and not only about the condition. And although it’s generally not advised, let the interviewee see your final draft. The characteristics of perfectionism and control associated with an eating disorder can make someone anxious about getting everything right.

If you need to interview someone while researching, keep an open communication and specify whether your story has been commissioned or not. Your interviewees are offering you their time, be respectful of that.

Work with photo editors

“Every interview I've ever done, they wanted pictures of me at my lowest weight,” Oaten says. “They wanted the number on the scales but it’s unhelpful to give this away. I did once before I became known as an actress, and still to this day journalists make this the main focus of the article.”

Asking for pictures of people at their lowest weight is not only intrusive but also damaging for those who are still struggling. 

Wilgress added: ”Anorexia, in particular, is hugely competitive. People will draw comparisons with images that they see.”

Both editors and reporters should work with the picture desk to make sure that sensationalist or potentially triggering images are avoided.

Always provide helpline information

When reporting about eating disorders, include helplines and useful resources for your readers.

“A simple action such as providing information on where to get help can literally save lives and help small charities like mine,” Oaten says.

How to get help: The National Eating Disorders Association in the U.S. can be reached by phone at 1-800-931-2237 or online via chat. If you’re in the U.K., you can call Beat at 0808 801 0677 or SEED at 01482 718130.

Main image CC-licensed by Unsplash via Damian Zaleski.

Iris Pase is a freelance journalist based in Glasgow.