Blogging, particularly in the world of health and wellness, has received a lot of bad press in the last year or so. The way I see it, it all started with the Belle Gibson scandal, and culminated in the ‘clean eating’ backlash. During the height of it, the media seemed happy to pick on any details they could to discredit bloggers, and while some of it was a little harsh (and occasionally sexist), it’s led to a much wider discussion about the ethics of blogging.
This is a subject I’ve been asked to speak about on panels on several occasions now, and for those of you who haven’t been able to make it to these, I wanted to share my top tips for ethical health blogging.
1. Know and respect your limitations
A lifetime of eating and cooking doesn’t make you a nutrition expert, nor does going to the gym qualify you to be a personal trainer. Doing something for yourself is one thing, educating someone else an entirely different matter.
While there’s nothing wrong with sharing a gym selfie or a recipe, be mindful that you’re not qualified to recommend your own eating habits or workouts to anyone else, and doing so can have serious consequences on their health or lead them to injure themselves. That’s your responsibility, so be mindful of what you share.
People train for weeks, months, or even years to gain reputable qualifications in the field of heath. Becoming a personal trainer takes several weeks full-time, becoming a registered nutritionist takes at least 3 years, and becoming a doctor at least 5. So don’t think for one second that a quick Google search puts you on an even footing with those who are qualified. Stay humble, and stay within your limits.
Having said all the above, what if you’re really keen to write about a particular topic, and it’s not within your area of expertise? Collaborate with someone who knows what they’re talking about, whether that’s by asking them to write a guest post, ask them a few questions to incorporate into the post, or ask them to read through the post and give their thoughts.
There are a great many healthcare professionals on Twitter (and Instagram too, but Twitter is the big one), and one of them would almost definitely be happy to help you out. Trust me, we’d much rather you asked than just plough through on your own and potentially say something wrong or dangerous.
For a while there was a real stigma in the blogging world about collaborating, and it was seen as a sign of weakness. Luckily that now seems to be changing.
3. Respond well to criticism
If someone asks for evidence for your claims, or doesn’t agree with you, the worst thing you can do is simply get defensive, rude, or simply shove your qualifications down their throat. (I would argue one notable exception to this is if someone tells you to ‘do your research’ and you have a PhD in the subject. Then by all means throw your PhD right up in their face. PhD = having done research. Real research. Not just Googling.)
I would argue that if you get rude and defensive to criticism (unless it’s downright rude and offensive), then that’s a sure sign you can’t defend your arguments. If you can’t back yourself up on something, don’t put it out there.
4. Make a clear distinction between evidence and opinion
I can’t stress this enough. Sharing your personal journey is great, and I don’t want to stop anyone from doing that, but make a clear distinction between ‘I really like this and it seems to have a positive effect for me’, and ‘there’s evidence to suggest this is an effective tool for x’. Be really obvious. And if you’re worried, add a disclaimer to your blog and/or social media channels. Open up a discussion. But don’t let someone believe that because something is great for you it’s an evidence-based solution for the general population. The correct answer to ‘hey do you think this could work for me too?’ is ‘go talk to a healthcare professional’, not ‘yeah sure why not’.
5. Admit your mistakes
Making mistakes is only human, and isn’t something we should be ashamed or afraid of. If you get something wrong, and someone calls you out, don’t just change your words and delete their comment, thank them.
And if, over the course of time, you’ve changed your mind about a subject due to the evidence or simply due to re-evaluation, don’t pretend the past never happened. Write about it, show people how you changed your mind and why. That’s so much more valuable, and shows your willingness to think critically and be open-minded. All wonderful qualities that we should embrace.
I don’t want to put anyone off blogging, and make you stress too much about what to post to the point where you don’t post anything at all. But right now we have a problem with self-proclaimed experts on everything health, and a lack of caution in the words we write.
Before you post something, just take a second to stop, think, and evaluate whether there’s a chance someone could misinterpret you or whether your post could incite unnecessary fear. That’s all I could ask for. Just think before you post.