Guardian Editor Responds To Criticism Of Keller’s Article On Lisa Adams

Guardian Readers' Editor, Chris Elliot

Guardian Readers’ Editor, Chris Elliot

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.