Guardian Editor Responds To Criticism Of Keller’s Article On Lisa Adams
Chris Elliot, The Guardian readers’ editor, has today responded to the overwhelming criticism the newspaper received for publishing Emma Keller’s article attacking Lisa Adams.
He begins by apportioning blame to the editing process, something that Emma Keller would not have control over. This is a point I take, when I was asked to contribute my own article on the topic to this Irish online newspaper, the editor changed my title to one that I wouldn’t have chosen.
I agree that there are many problems with the article and the way it is presented, both in style and tone. The headline and subheading – not written by Keller – are too flippant. And the references to Adams as “dying” and being on her “deathbed” are inaccurate representations of her illness and the way she portrays that illness in her public tweets. She has not tweeted “100,000 times about her health” – an error introduced in the editing process – nor has she been in a “seven year decline”. She said that between June 2007 and October 2012 she was in remission. It was only at the end of that period that she was diagnosed with metastatic cancer, and she said in one of her emails to the Guardian that since then she has tweeted prolifically “for the purpose [of] education and also community to bring doctors, patients, hospitals, scientists, advocates and everyone touched by cancer closer on the [one] goal we should have: support and compassion for the metastatic cancer patient, not a blindsiding critique of how they spend their time”.
He then goes on to acknowledge that “while there was no obligation for Keller to tell Adams that she intended to write the article drawing on the public tweets, I strongly feel Keller should have done so in such a sensitive situation. In an update to the blogpost on 10 January Keller posted an apology about that failure and about using part of a private Twitter message.” (Keller herself now says that she regrets “not giving her notice about the piece. In the circumstances it would have been the compassionate thing to do and Lisa deserved that.”)
However Elliot doesn’t “think it is wrong to frame a question about how those with incurable illnesses use social media, but the Guardian was wrong in the way it went about it.” And how! On this point there are many of us who agree that the subject of how patients use social media is a topic that is well worth discussion – so long as it is a balanced and fair discussion. Over this past week, so many of us have come out in force to re-iterate what a vital lifeline of support, education, and information social media is to us.
It is instructive to read the comments in response to Elliot’s piece, quite a large proportion of which take the line that this has been a storm in a teacup, and Emma Keller was right in her assessment of Lisa Adams. Here are some examples:
…since Adams has decided to broadcast her tweets to whoever wants to read them, I felt they were entirely fair game for Keller to comment on.
So dying person seeks attention and affirmation, but gets angry when it’s not of the right sort? Whatever happened to dignity?
I find the kind of twittering/blogging Adams is up to so void of interest – it carries with it some sort of implicitly immunity from criticism.
If you choose to write publicly about anything you shouldn’t be upset when that provokes further discussion or even controversy.
If you want privacy then don’t use public media
Many of these commentators, like the Kellers, are wide of the mark. Implicit and explicit in these comments are the following points:
1.Lisa Adams, like the rest of us know when we use social media that it is not a private platform. Sure, everyone is free to read, or not, our “twitterings”, but does that make someone fair game for a hatchet job? There is a wider issue here of common decency and good manners, if not cyber-bullying, which needs to be addressed. Meghan O’Rourke writing in the New Yorker, sums it up best “She may be allowing us to overhear her decisions, but she is not asking us to callously debate them as if she were not still here.” And in A Few Lessons About Twitter, Cancer, And Publishing, Linda Holmes writes:
I wonder sometimes whether the self-disclosure and informality of Twitter leads journalists to conclude they have different obligations to those who write on Twitter than to those who write elsewhere, because once you step outside of traditional publishing, you’re in a sort of free-for-all where whatever anybody says is your own fault, because you opened your mouth.
2. Evident in the readers’ comments is the same kind of judgment meted out by the Kellers of what is the “right way” to die – “with dignity” i.e. quietly, somewhere out of the way, so as not to disturb the living.
3. Social media is only for attention-seekers – it serves no other purpose than that. This completely misses the whole rise of the e-patient movement, a topic I have spoken about here.
As I went to hit publish on this post, I discovered that Nancy Stordahl has come up with an even more comprehensive list of her own, which include society’s double standards and an inability to have an open and honest discussion about dying – you can read her list here.
As always, would love to hear your thoughts on this latest twist in the Keller/Adams story.
cruelty never ok
I love the way you are covering and commenting on this, Marie. As you say, this whole area about the role of social media in illness, and especially relating to cancer, is a fascinating and topical melting pot.
I have read this only quickly, but the point for me which is critical is that it should all hinge on is RESPECT. Being open does not mean that you are “fair game” for unkind and disrespectful discourse. It is not a choice between privacy and social media, it is HOW social media is used. Sadly, being public too often means that rules of humanity and decency are thrown away.
Thank you both for your comments. I love what you say Philippa about it not being a choice between privacy and social media – sure we understand that we give up a right to privacy when we share our personal lives online, but we shouldn’t have to give up our rights to civility too.
I appreciate Elliot’s response, even if it doesn’t make everything all right. The comments, however, are deeply disturbing. While it’s true that we are “fair game” when we express ourselves through social media, it’s also true that every school-aged child who attends school is fair game when stepping on to the schoolyard. Doesn’t justify bullying.
Excuses do not justify treating someone wrongly. Just because you can (“fair game”), does not mean you should. His response is a start, but he should have confessed that they treated Lisa very disrespectfully, apologized publicly and sincerely to Lisa, and left it at that. And there should have been a similar published apology from Emma Keller.
When I read Emma Keller’s piece I had two very strong reactions: 1. it was very badly edited and 2. it reminded me of some posts I have in my “draft” folder that have never (and will never) see the light of day.
These were posts where I had a point to make or a feeling to express but a few paragraphs into it it just wasn’t clicking. Muddled thinking and it showed when I tried to express it through writing. So I set it aside. Sometimes the problem isn’t clarity, it’s tone. Without meaning to I slipped from gentle sarcasm to mean and petty. These too get binned because, as Marie says, civility is important and I crossed that line.
I’m not a professional writer and must be my own editor. Emma Keller was writing professionally and presumably did have one but he or she did not serve her well. There are good questions in her piece but they are so poorly expressed and the tone is so unpleasant, that they are completely lost. And that’s a pity because they might have sparked a good discussion.
Last point (I’m almost out of coffee). I work as an activist these days. I write a fair amount about a topic (not BC) that is generating a lot of strong emotions on all sides. Sometimes I read the articles against us and the comments and I just want to weep – cruel and so lacking in empathy. Deep breath and I remind myself that I can’t control other people – il y a des cons partout (there are idiots everywhere). What I can do is sit down after I’ve calmed down and throw back a thoughtful response.
As I read the blog responses to Keller’s piece this is what I’m seeing – forceful but thoughtful and civil posts that are a pleasure to read. So well done, in fact, that I find I have nothing to add to the discussion – just a link and a “what she said.” 🙂
HI Marie, As I keep saying, there are many issues being exposed here, or at least I hope so. I think we do have to be mindful of what we share online, but… as everyone has mentioned, cyber bullying is wrong too. The biggest mistake the Kellers made was singling out one woman as an example and they did so using inaccurate information in a very insensitive manner. And the headline was out-of-line. I realize often times others write headlines. This is one example of how that sometimes clearly is not a good idea. Thanks for including the link to my list in your post, Marie.