Home » Misc » “Cuz We Need a Little Controversy:” A Response, Part 2

“Cuz We Need a Little Controversy:” A Response, Part 2

After what has seemed like an eternity, I am finally back in the world of computers, electronic communication, blogging…and Macbooks. I have to say, that last one feels especially good.

But while I was gone, apparently the blogworld was turned upside-down and rocked with controversy over a certain article that appeared in a popular fashion magazine. I’m not going to link to the article because I’m sure most people have read it by now and honestly, I don’t actually want to drive any more traffic to their site. Suffice it to say that the piece was slanted, mean-spirited, and completely unproductive in the way that it was written. But, believe it or not, I don’t want to talk about that. Instead, I want to talk about The Aftermath, and the conversations that I wish I were seeing more of around the healthy living blogworld, now that emotions have died down and people are able to think more clearly.

This past week, I have been talking with Alex about our personal reactions to the Marie Claire article. Quite frankly, if you look beyond the hurt feelings and character attacks, the article does have a layer of truth. Not only that, but it brings up some pretty important points on blogger responsibility and the potential consequences of our words. So while there have been many posts and reactions to the article written already (some, I would argue, are much more productive than others), we’ve both decided to share our own thoughts on the issue. Not because we want to sound like a broken record, but rather to serve as a call to action to bloggers out there — no matter what your niche — to take a step back, reflect, and think about how this is an opportunity for growth. Alex has done a great job getting the conversation started with her post this morning. If you haven’t read it yet, I encourage you to stop reading my blog (seriously!) and go over to I Eat Asphalt to read Part 1; then continue the conversation back here.

Experience = Expert?

The internet is a wonderful, crazy thing. Anyone can get behind a computer, start up a blog and share their experiences with the world. Reading and writing blogs can allow us to learn from the experiences of people just like us, form relationships, start great discussions, and get inspired. But blogging can have a dark side too. Because literally anyone can pass themselves off as an expert, regardless of their credentials. Whether a person writes with authority, appears to have a lot of experience with a certain issue, or is simply in a position of admiration due to the popularity of their site, their words can easily become seen as the truth. Unfortunately, whether intentional or not, this “truth” can sometimes be different from what experts recommend.

Now this is where the issue becomes tricky. Just because someone is a licensed, credentialed expert, doesn’t necessarily mean they’re always right. We all know that experts sometimes get it wrong, and even the best and brightest scientists don’t always agree. But does that mean they shouldn’t at least be consulted? That just because we have first-hand experience in something, we know just as much (if not more) than individuals who spend their lives researching in a particular field? Articles in peer-reviewed journals (like JAMA) and sites maintained by recognized experts such as CDC, ADA, and ASCM, undergo rigorous review before being published. These sites contain a lot of FREE health information…information where fact has been clearly separated from fiction, so the reader doesn’t have to sort it out for himself.

Now, I know the counter-argument to this. People don’t go to blogs for expert advice. People go to find out what works for real people; people just like them. And I would agree with that…to an extent. When you are successful with something — whether it be weight loss, running, or maintaining a well-balanced, healthy life — you become an expert in a reader’s eyes, particularly one with less experience than you. You know first-hand what it’s like to lose 100 pounds, run a marathon, or eat healthy on a budget. That experience is valuable, and people can certainly learn from it. That is one one of the great things about having a blog — it can be a wonderful way of sharing experiences and lessons learned with others. However, the danger comes when a person who has experience, but not the recognized expertise, passes off health-related information and advice as fact. I think we need to all be more careful about this. Even if you don’t mean for a reader to take your words as gospel, I strongly believe that there needs to be a better awareness that this can happen. And just saying “this is what worked for me” may not be enough. Comparing what you recommend with what the experts say (whether you agree or not), finding a recognized source to cite, or simply not posting information that is outside your area of expertise are all ways to avoid these issues from happening.

When Good Intentions Lead to Some Not-so-good Results

I’m not trying to imply that bloggers are maliciously sitting behind their computers, scheming up posts as a way to lead their minions readers astray. Obviously there are some pretty awful websites out there, but I believe that most individuals who blog within this niche are doing so with pure intentions, because they want to influence and inspire other individuals. But unfortunately, sometimes even the purest intentions can have negative consequences.

For example — I live in the tiny, proud state of Rhode Island. In our little state, all the hospitals operate under one system. Recently the RI hospital system adopted a smoke-free campus policy, which means that all hospitals in the state are completely, 100% smoke-free. No designated smoking rooms or little smoking huts outside. If you are on hospital property, you are not allowed to smoke. Period. It goes without saying that I think this is a wonderful policy. Hospitals should be leaders when it comes to health care, and not allowing patients and employees to smoke on campus sends a strong message about the dangers of smoking and exposure to second-hand smoke.

“So where is she going with this??” you ask. Well, I happen to live near one of these hospitals. In fact, it’s situated right, smack in the middle of my neighborhood. And everyday when I walk my pup, I see employees and patients outside smoking. Because if they cross the street, they are no longer on hospital property…and therefore allowed to smoke. But crossing the street also puts them right in front of someone’s house, where they often stand, smoke their cigarette, and throw the butt in the nearest yard. Not only are they exposing anyone who happens to be outside on that property to second-hand smoke, but they are also littering.

Does this mean that I think the policy should be abolished? That it’s doing more harm than good? Absolutely not. I realize that the overall benefit of not allowing smoking on/near a hospital greatly outweighs the little bit of harm that might have come as a result. But, I also believe that this doesn’t mean the hospital should look the other way, believing their duty to be done. Regardless of whether the hospital has already done something to discourage employees from smoking in/near people’s yards, it clearly could use some improvement. No, I don’t think the hospital can actually control individual behavior, and they certainly can’t force people to do something. But, when a policy that the hospital has created ends up creating another problem, I believe it is the hospital’s responsibility to look at that problem and work at improving it.

I think the same applies to the blogging world. Even if you didn’t mean for your words and actions to be interpreted in a certain way, it doesn’t mean you should feel completely removed from all responsibility when/if they are. I know we can’t control our readers, and everyone needs to be responsible for their own actions to a certain extent. But does individual responsibility mean that we can’t keep looking for ways to grow and improve? That we can’t apply just a little bit of self-reflection and admit that maybe we had a little part to play in the problem? I would argue that it does not. We can always work to improve ourselves — to be better people, better examples, better bloggers.

It is worth noting that I say all this with my own blog in mind. If the Marie Claire controversy has taught me anything, it’s as Alex said: blogger beware. I would hate for something that I wrote on this little blog of mine to be mis-interpreted, or to lead someone down a destructive path. But I’m human, and I’m sure I’ve made mistakes. Even though I have a graduate degree in public health, and many years of experience in competing in races and leading teams, there may have been times where I’ve given advice that I have no business writing. Or posted something because it’s second-nature to me without taking a step-back and realizing that just because it’s something I’ve always done, doesn’t mean it’s something actually recommended for most people. Personally, I am using this as an opportunity to reflect and make my blog better. Maybe it’s easy for me to say, since I wasn’t personally attacked in the article. But you tell me what you think is more productive — simply going on the defensive and focusing on how the blogging community was wrongly portrayed, or accepting responsibility that for all the good that comes from the blogging community, there is a potential for harm, and opening up an honest dialogue about what we can do to make sure that doesn’t happen.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about these posts in general, and about what responsible blogging actually looks like. I know both Alex and I have focused more on what we believe bloggers shouldn’t do, but what about the flip-side of the issue? Do you think there are (or should be) specific guidelines bloggers should abide by when they post? And how do we really make that divide between expert, and just experienced?

16 Responses to “Cuz We Need a Little Controversy:” A Response, Part 2

  1. Love this. I think it goes without saying that I completely agree with you. My graduate education and job is based on separating health fact from fiction so I feel pretty passionate about this.

    I absolutely love blogs and enjoy seeing what training plans and eating habits work for people. And I know to take it all with a grain of salt since I work in health literacy. But, the average person reads at a fifth grade reading level(!) and certainly does not have the abilitiy to separate health fact from opinion.

    The MC article was ridiculously horrible and I do not agree with it at all. However, like you, the fallout has taught me to be a more responsible blogger.
    Jen´s last post ..Synching the mind and body

  2. GREAT thoughts and I am right there with you. A huge thank you to you and Alex for sharing your thoughts openly and honestly and not just beating a dead horse. i think there was a lot to learn from this whole debacle and for that, i am thankful.
    Courtney (Pancakes & Postcards)´s last post ..TIA- Home Improvement

  3. Well said, Lauren! I completely agree with your perspective on the Marie Claire aftermath. Bloggers do have a responsibility that cannot be ignored.

    Since the article was published, it has been on my mind. I have not addressed it on my blog, but I feel like I definitely scrutinize everything in my own posts to be sure that it is appropriate and not misleading.

    That being said, I have a small, lighthearted running/eating blog. I’d like to keep it that way, but I feel like there is a new pressure to present readers with hard facts and research to support the things I say. I would never type anything that I couldn’t support, but at the same time, I hope that readers can disseminate the “information” from the simple stories and experiences.

    Looking forward to chatting with you tonight!
    Becky´s last post ..The Other Side of Marathon Training

    • I think you raise a good point, actually. There’s definitely different types of blogging. I think blogs CAN be light-hearted and we shouldn’t have to worry about backing up every single thing we say with a bunch of evidence. That would be ridiculous and take all the fun out of blogging (and reading blogs)! But I guess the gray area is related to where we should actually draw the line. To me, I feel like the concern comes more from authoritative how-to posts, or any posts giving instruction or health advice, etc. I think part of responsible blogging means not writing those posts unless you actually ARE an authority, or have done the research to back it up.

  4. I have a comment about “Just because someone is a licensed, credentialed expert, doesn’t necessarily mean they’re always right.” My wife and I are reading two books by very well know authors, and both are doctors with all these fancy awards.

    There other night I read a chapter about meat. The author basically said if you eat any meat at you you might as well just inject yourself with cancer. The author of my wifes books says, if you don’t eat meat your babies are going to come out with three legs and mental handicaps and you’ll also get cancer. One expert says meat is good, the other says its not. Who to believe? They are both well educated with awards coming out both ends.

    The Solution.
    I do have a good tip to help with these types of issues.

    Go get the advice from old people. I’m lucky to be 31 years old and still have grandparents around. I seek their advice on these topics because they are old (75,77), wise and they could probably out walk anyone commenting on this blog. No longer do I listen to “Licensed, PHD, College educated, leet speaking know it alls”. Just let it go in one ear and out the other because they don’t have anywhere near the experience old healthy people have.

    As for the article, publicity.
    Jim@goingFitness´s last post ..When Racoons attack runners

    • I agree with this to an extent. Experts definitely don’t always agree and many of them have their own agenda that they’re trying to sell, and can “prove” that agenda by twisting around facts however they want. There are many things we seem to have gotten so confused about in this day and age…and the wisdom of older generations is extremely valuable (and often has a lot more common sense!!) Movements like eating real food (or not eating anything your grandma wouldn’t recognize as food) speak strongly to that.

      However, following that line of logic, you could conclude that the oldest doctors, researchers, etc (who are grandparents too) are always the wisest. I would say that certainly is not true. While there are many wise older doctors, there are also many that are stuck in their old ways and as stubborn about their opinions as some of the new, brash experts you’re talking about. As conflicting as the medical field can be, there have been many new advances in science and technology that have changed the field of medicine and have allowed us to better treat disease and other problems.

      I love my grandparents and think they are great sources of life wisdom. Nothing can replace the wisdom of their experience. But…there are many things I do that my grandma doesn’t necessarily think are healthy — eating a vegetarian diet and running marathons, to name a few. And there are certain health-related topics that I wouldn’t come to her with for advice.

  5. [...] post was in reference to a comment I made on Lauren’s blog (Health on the Run). I thought it was worth posting as the comment itself brings up a good point about seeking health [...]

  6. You and Alex have done a great job at rounding out what’s happened. You bring up SO many good points – People don’t go to blogs for expert advice.

    It’s such a touchy subject and it’s hard because I know I don’t want to change what makes my blog me because someone over in England might read it and get the wrong idea.

    At some point you have to block out the noise and those that you love and love you with stick around.

  7. At first when I read the article, my immediate reaction was that the writer was way off. Of course I still think that it was mean-spirited and should not have attacked bloggers personally. But on the other hand I have definitely seen plenty of blogs give advice out like they are trained experts, and most of the time they are not. I have done a few “tips” posts based on my personal experiences, but I think now I will think twice and find expert advice to back it up.
    p.s. Welcome back to blogland!
    Liz´s last post ..A 20 Mile Dress Rehearsal

  8. Another well written response. I appreciate that you took the time to think this out and present a well rounded arguement. Thank you.

  9. I love what you and Alex are doing! I’ve been wanting to write a response like this (and similar to you, wait a little until the initial shock died), but I think I may just link to both of your posts.. because well I’m not nearly as good as a writer or expressing myself : ) haha
    I also love the analogy of the hospital you used.
    I’m not sure how bloggers can take more responsibility for their blogs and what they say on it, but I’m very interested for the blogging community to start talking about it!
    BostonRunner´s last post ..Getaway Weekend

  10. May I say that this seems to be a very (North) American issue?
    In my country, if you take somebody’s, and I mean anybody’s, words for gospel, be it a blogger, or a journalist, or a movie star or a friend´s advice and then it somehow spins into sth negative for themselves, well, I think the majority would say Oh what an idiot! and move on. All this debate seems really foreign to my mindset.
    Surely that’s a cultural issue, I’ve read through all of these with interest but also a stunned curiosity, blogger’s responsability? really? I’ll take reader’s discernment any day.

    • That makes sense. And it is sort of crazy to be saying all this here in the United States — a land where we place a ton of value on personal freedom and individual choice. But while I’d love to expect that all individuals are critical readers, I personally don’t believe that’s the case. We are so incredibly influenced by our environments…the physical one in which we live, as well as the social and cultural ones we find ourselves in. Our behaviors are shaped based on those social/cultural norms. Not only that, but in this country we have such an unhealthy relationship with food, and our bodies. We’re all seeking the perfect way to be healthy (which typically seems to be translated to being skinny). And so we seek out advice from others who seem to have “gotten” it. I think we’re so far removed from the truth and listening to our bodies that we don’t know WHAT to believe anymore. I hate to sound so negative about people (and maybe it’s just my cynical public health self talking) but there are so many that just follow along like sheep with the newest fad diet, exercise routine etc. I think the same can be applied to the blogging world. If you see someone who has been elevated to the level of an authority based on their popularity, it’s easy to fall into a trap of comparing yourself and your lifestyle to theirs…even if it means you start making unhealthy decisions. I know not everyone does that, but I think that the potential for it is very real. Does that make sense?

  11. Believe it or not, I hadn’t read the article until I read it on I Eat Asphalt earlier today. And truth be told, I don’t know what I think yet. But thanks for sharing your thoughts on the issue!

  12. Great post, Lauren – I love your posts, as always, for their thoughtfulness and refusal to just go with convention. I have to admit, I’m a little torn over this whole hullabaloo. I’ve kept in mind that bloggers have a responsibility toward the information they put online from the very beginning – having read blogs for a few years before starting my own, I have seen how eagerly people will accept many things that are written online without any backing. At the same time, I have always believed that we should not take a paternalistic attitude toward other people or tiptoe around issues and become so PC that what we write (or say, or do) is ridiculously vague and convoluted that no one can figure out the message we are trying to convey in the first place. I have to admit that I haven’t come to a conclusion about this issue. I used to try to stay out of stuff like this, but I do understand that this world is a very real part of blogging.

    Well-written and thought out, as always, Lauren :)

  13. I just want to say really quickly (before heading out for a run!) that I really loved reading your opinion on the aftermath of the article. Yes, I do feel like we need to be aware of our blogger responsibility, but at the same time it is a fun escape for us sometimes as well. I do want to post more about running/fuel, etc. but I worry about how it may affect others. Of course when I read blogs like yours, I do enjoy learning about things you do that positively affect your running performance (like creating your training plan, etc), but I take everything for what it is : how it works for you. I then go to other resources like runners world, etc. for more ideas and even tweak them for myself as you do.

    Comparing ourselves to others is inevitable, but sometimes we can be influenced in a good way…like realizing we are pushing ourselves too much or not creating enough or reasonable goals.

    Thanks for this great post lady!

    p.s. as a fellow macbook owner…halleluah!

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