Last spring CNN ran a story on one of its correspondents, Cristina Alesci, who was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes as an adult. And a few days ago I came across the video of Ms. Alesci pleasantly sharing the way she manages diabetes in her busy life. I love seeing a person with type 1 diabetes powering through, which is what Alesci has done since her diagnosis. What I cannot stand is the fact that neither she nor the production team at CNN seems to have fact-checked the story to ensure that type 1 diabetes was represented accurately and clearly. It is a three-and-a-half-minute story about type 1 diabetes which doesn’t even give a definition of the disease.
Those watching the segment with no knowledge of diabetes would have finished it feeling either confused or armed with the wrong information about type 1 diabetes and how it is treated. The segment begins with Alesci’s passion for Italian food, and then her “out of the blue” diagnosis of type 1 diabetes. This could easily perpetuate the idea that eating too much is the cause of diabetes.
One minute into the video, the interviewer, Holly Firfer, asks Alesci to explain being diagnosed so late in life “because usually we see this in kids.” Alesci confirms the statement saying, “that’s exactly right.”
Unfortunately, they are both wrong.
Despite the old misnomer “juvenile diabetes,” most people with type 1 diabetes are adults – around 85%, according to JDRF. JDRF also notes, “Each year, more than 15,000 children and 15,000 adults—approximately 80 people per day—are diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in the U.S.” Or in other words, half of people diagnosed with type 1 diabetes are adults.
Immediately after saying that doctors don’t know what triggered her type 1 diabetes, at one minute and twenty seconds into the video, Alesci says, “it’s a genetic defect, obviously, and as a result I’m not producing as much insulin as I should be producing.”
Again, wrong. The correct explanation is:
No one knows what causes type 1 diabetes. It is an autoimmune disease that occurs when the body’s immune system misfires and destroys the cells in the pancreas that produce insulin. Insulin is the hormone enables us to get energy from food, and without it, a person will starve to death. So in order to survive, people with type 1 diabetes need to inject insulin regularly.
Alesci’s statement about not producing enough insulin is concerning because it misinforms the public about an important aspect of type 1 diabetes. In a person with type 1 diabetes, the pancreas, in most cases, stops producing insulin altogether.
Eventually the segment cuts to some clips of Alesci checking her blood sugar and showing her “go low” snack drawer. She does mention the need to eat “carbs” (carbohydrates) when she has low blood sugar, but without more information, a person without any real knowledge of diabetes who mistakenly thinks that eating donuts gives you diabetes, would likely be thinking, ‘’Wait, why would someone with diabetes be eating carbs?’’ Moreover, it was a perfect moment to educate the public about the dangers of a low blood sugar. Instead, the Ms. Firfer quips about the ‘low’ height of the ‘go low’ drawer.
What they could have said:
Firfer: Why do you need the go low drawer?
Alesci: It’s really hard to dose insulin correctly. If I take too much I will go low and need sugar (carbs) immediately. A person with very low blood sugar can pass out, have a seizure, and even die. People with type 1 diabetes have to monitor their blood sugar constanly, and work very hard to stay healthy.
We see many images of Alesci eating salads with talk of the need for healthy diet and workouts, but there is otherwise no other description or context for this. It just adds confusion for viewers and conflates type 1 and type 2 diabetes.
I will circle back again to the empowering side of this segment. Alesci wants to show that “diabetes will not hold you back” and I applaud that. However, she says this amidst an ending montage where she also claims “I want to make a change, I want better research… you can make change for yourself and you can make change for the people around you.” We see her taking another bite of salad as she makes these proclamations, so are we to assume dietary change is what she thinks is needed?
And perhaps most confusing of all is the line that eating well and regular exercise help keep Alesci’s ‘’insulin levels’’ stable. What she’s actually doing is keeping her blood sugar level stable. Not to mention, it is the constant blood sugar checking, insulin dosing, carbohydrate counting and calculations that are also contributing to her stable blood sugars.
CNN missed a golden opportunity to not only educate people with the facts about type 1 diabetes, but to show just how much work is involved in managing it every day. It is a true shame that CNN did not take more care to get the facts right in order to better represent life with diabetes.