Responsible Media Coverage of Eating Disorders

As the largest information clearing house about eating disorders and related issues, the National Eating Disorders Association recognizes that the media is one of our most important allies in the effort to raise awareness about the dangers of eating disorders. For this reason, we strive to work with the media to produce accurate, insightful and informative pieces that will resonate with the public.

One challenge of explaining the causes and effects of eating disorders is the complex interplay of biological, psychological and social forces that combine to ignite the onset of an eating disorder. Eating disorders, like suicide or terrorism, are issues that must be covered in a careful and responsible way in order to avoid inadvertently glamorizing or promoting copycats to experiment with these life-threatening behaviors.

Our website and fact sheets provide the most accurate and up-to-date information on eating disorders, including statistics that add relevance and importance to your stories. This guide contains other basic information that should guide your approach to covering eating disorders.

Several common coverage mistakes can cause serious harm.

When you cover eating disorders, please:

  • Don't focus on graphic images or descriptions of the bodies of eating disorder sufferers.  Research proves that coverage dramatizing dangerous thinness can provoke a "race to the bottom" among other sufferers, i.e., "She is thinner than I am and she's still alive. I should lose more weight."
  • Don't play the numbers game. "She ate only 400 calories a day" or "He took as many as 10 laxatives at a time "can turn a well-intentioned article into a recipe for disaster.
  • Watch out for "anorexia chic." Eating disorders and their sufferers shouldn't be glamorized or, worse yet, presented as people with "astounding will-power" or "incredible self-control."
  • Be careful with narratives of those who "bravely fought their illness alone." Perhaps your subject did, but most don't. The vast majority of those who beat eating disorders do it only with the ongoing help of trained medical professionals. Consider how you would write about someone "bravely fighting" alcohol or drug addiction without proper intervention and professional care.

Tips for covering eating disorders issues with sensitivity and fairness:

Try to strike a balance between"serious"and "hopeless," and always encourage people to seek help for themselves or loved ones who are suffering. Recovery is long and often expensive, but it is achievable and there are many options available.

Include contact numbers, addresses, or links to information and treatment resources wherever possible. Otherwise you will raise fears and concerns without providing an outlet, which is a lot like leaving theFBI's phone number of fastory about a dangerous criminal. Our toll-free Information and Referral Helpline, 800-931-2237, and website, www.NationalEatingDisorders.org, provide great nation wide resources.

If you need more information, ask! The National Eating Disorders Association has the latest resources and in many cases we may be able to point you to treatment professionals or prevention volunteers in your coverage area. We cannot, for ethical and legal reasons, provide sufferers to talk about their disease to the media. However, we can help to arrange interviews with individuals who have suffered from an eating disorder in the past, but are now in recovery.

Coverage of Pro-Ana, Pro-Mia and Thinspo

Pro-ana, pro-mia and thinspo are short for pro-anorexia, pro-bulimia, and thinspiration, respectively. These terms refer to web content that intentionally encourages or glorifies dangerous behaviors characteristic of those who struggle with the eating disorders Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia Nervosa, which can be life-threatening.

Such sites are dangerous, both for those who have an eating disorder and those who do not, but may be vulnerable, and it is critical that media cover this topic responsibly because failure to do so may inadvertently increase traffic to the sites, with potentially devastating consequences for your readers. Below, we suggest some guidelines for avoiding some of the common dangers seen in media attention to this topic.

There has been an alarming rise in this type of content on the internet. In a trend report in 2008, Optenet found that the prevalence of pro-ana sites had increased by 470% between 2006 and 2007. http://www.optenet.com/mailing/pdfs/TrendReport.pdf

Highlight the danger, but avoid sensationalizing the issue.

Help your readers to understand that pro-anorexia and pro-bulimia sites are very dangerous, both for those who have an eating disorder and those who do not, but may be vulnerable.  Here are some things to keep in mind when deciding what to include in a piece:

  • Research indicates that providing numbers for lowest weights or goal weights, and showing graphic images glorifying extreme thinness can be triggering.
  • Individuals struggling with an eating disorder might believe that they need to reach thepublished “low weights” before they qualify for getting help.Individuals susceptible can also use this number as a goal weight and sink deeper into the illness.
  • Publishing calorie counts and detailing specific behaviors for weigh loss are also dangerous. This type of information is often instructive and could result in the reader engaging in behaviors that put the individual at serious risk for health complications and further entrenching the eating disorder.

Do not sensationalize by making such sites seem mysterious and intriguing, which can often serve as an invitation to readers to see if for themselves. Doing so will only add to the proliferation of this dangerous content and unnecessarily put your readers in harm’s way.

Do not include links to specific pro-ana/pro-mia/thinspo sites. This will only increase the exposure of these sites, potentially triggering those who are vulnerable or further entrenching the eating disorder for those who may be struggling.

Thank you for your commitment to accurate, sensitive, and responsible coverage.