Godbeat scribe’s diabetes, and what he did about it

One of the first rules journalists learn is that you don’t generally write about yourself. The gist goes something like this: the story is about other people and their story, not the reporter who personally experiences the story. Every once in a while, you’ll see a reporter like Michael Luo pop up and write something drawing from his own experience, but it’s not the usual style for many reporters.

Recently, though, we read a piece by a religion reporter who deviated from the usual to write about weight loss. The name Bob Smietana, religion reporter for The Tennessean, might ring a bell for many regular GetReligion readers. We’ve interviewed him, looked at his pieces and he chimes in and comments on occasion. Eight months ago, right after I saw Smietana at the Religion Newswriters Association conference, he was diagnosed with diabetes. This week, he wrote for his paper about becoming 40 pounds lighter.

His piece really raises interesting questions about reporters being comfortable enough in their own skin (literally for Smietana) to write something so vulnerable. It’s not a religion piece, and it’s not something we would typically dissect, but it raises interesting questions for journalism and how religion fits into that possibly more personality inclusive journalism. How much do you insert your own background or experience and how does it inform the story for other people?

Here’s an intro that will make you pretty hungry, literally and figuratively:

A mile into my workout at the gym and I start dreaming of cake.

Chocolate cake with buttercream frosting that’s chilled but not frozen — cold enough so the cake and frosting are firm and rich and so sweet that you can get lost in the flavor.

And French fries, crinkle-cut and just snatched from the deep fryer, so crispy that they almost snap when you take a bite. With buckets of ketchup on the side and a Blue Moon beer with a slice of orange to wash them down.

I could eat these things.

Then I would die.

The reason the piece works better than a random post about weight loss on just anyone’s blog is how Smietana uses his own story to put it in context of a larger issue of what other people are probably experiencing. “That blood sugar test meant that I — like about 25.3 million other Americans, according to the American Diabetes Association — had diabetes,” he writes. Being a religion reporter, of course faith pops up.

A preacher once told me that the New Testament Greek word “metanoia” — which my Bible translates as “repentance” — really refers to a complete transformation or metamorphosis.

He said that it literally means to stop walking in one direction, to turn around, and begin walking the opposite.

Diabetes for me has meant that kind of transformation.

Smietana explains how he lived on fast food, pasta and rarely exercised, and now he walks two or three miles every day. He’s down to 212 pounds, 40 pounds down from his diabetes diagnosis.

I’m guessing a lot of people will relate to this section of the piece:

Before that call from the doctor’s, I would not have believed that this kind of change was possible.

I felt terrible but was too overwhelmed with the pressures of life — work, raising a family, this never-ending recession — to do anything about it.

Getting diagnosed made the problem simple: Change now or die.

I’m kind of curious how his editors felt about him somewhat subtly inserting some sort of faith-y-ness. Obviously he is the religion reporter, but he’s also covering Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, etc., so I would not be surprised if another editor gave him pushback for inserting any sort of particular Scripture into his piece. But I think the piece reads better because he did, since it’s clearly a part of his thought process in the entire weight loss experience.

The great irony is that I feel better knowing I have diabetes than I did before my diagnosis, when I was sick and didn’t know how near to death I was.

In the Old Testament book of Numbers, the people of Israel stand outside the Promised Land with their leader Joshua.

He gives them a choice: “This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the LORD your God, listen to His voice, and hold fast to Him.”

That’s not all, but I don’t want to give away the end. Go read it.

With blogs, social media and other less traditional media, personalities thrive, and some of the old school, traditional reporters appear to be navigating what that means for their roles. The story is still about something or someone else, but perhaps some journalists are getting a little more comfortable with personality. You’ll see reporters emerge with a little humor or personal experience on social media (not always a great thing, but it’s happening), tweeting or Facebooking something they would never say on an “official” website or in print.

In some way, personalizing something can seem humanizing for an industry that has acted all “Objectivity (whatever that is) trumps all.” These reporters have real lives, real families, real struggles, real triumphs, as much as anyone else. As they navigate new media territory, journalists will have to figure out how much they insert themselves or their experience, whether it really adds to the overall story, whether it means more personality or not. For me, Smietana’s piece was a winner.

Images courtesy Bob Smietana.

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  • Jerry

    To state the obvious, reporters are human beings. Objectivity does not mean becoming totally robotic about news stories but applying best practices for what makes a good news story. I think it’s totally appropriate for a reporter to write a first person story.

    But I also think it would not be appropriate to mix a first person narrative in with a regular story with one exception. There could be a sidebar to the actual story which lets the reader know how the reporter’s personal experience influenced his choice of or approach to the story.

  • Dave

    Congrats to Bob on his weight loss and best of fortune in continuing to live life.

    –Dave (diagnosed 1994)

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    I bet there are a lot of reporters with type 2 diabetes–also plenty of deacons (like myself).
    I have found books about religious fasting and the early Church desert fathers quite helpful in keeping to the goal of taking off 30 pounds–and keeping it off.
    It would be interesting to read some reviews on books about the desert fathers (Cistercian Press has published a lot of these) or other religious fasting topics by a reporter whose life depended on successfully exorcising the demons of lust for food in his own life.

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    John, I’m not sure what this means: by a reporter whose life depended on successfully exorcising the demons of lust for food in his own life. — Can you explain more?

  • Bob Smietana

    Hi John

    I’ve found that having regular practices – not unlike spiritual practices- has been a real help. I test my blood sugar at the same time each day, eat at the same times daily (and often the same things) – walk at the same times. I definitely pay more attention to my life than ever before.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Sarah–the desert fathers (Egypt, Syria, etc.) about 300-500 A.D. usually labeled powerful attacks of temptation or desire (lust) as living forms of evil (demons) that have to be fought in spiritual combat.
    Bob– Many Catholics, myself included, find exercise B-O-R-I-n-G. and have needed something to keep our minds and souls occupied when, for example, walking. A solution I have found is to pray the rosary while meditating on the traditional “mysteries” of the rosary (mostly events in Christ’s life or as Catholics say: “To Jesus Through Mary”).
    I started this decades ago and, according to my doctor it has apparently helped keep my blood pressure, weight, and blood sugar down. He said that I am the only one of the many patients he has told to walk who has stuck with taking a good daily walk.
    Did I just happen to stumble onto a way to “keep on walking??” or was I led to this method by Our Blessed Mother for whom I have consequently developed a strong devotion and deeper faith in her Son???

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Note: Sarah if a person is dozens of pounds overweight and because of this is in the process of destroying him or her self’s health then the demon of gluttony is probably working overtime tempting a person to unwittingly virtually commit suicide by embracing the “deadly sin” of gluttony. I think some interesting articles or books could be written looking into this as part of the reason for our country’s deadly rush into obesity–our lack of faith in Christ’s words enjoining us to sell what we have and give to the poor. Instead we pay for Weight Watchers so we can go back to gorging ourselves at the table. I wonder how many starving children around the world could have been fed by the thousands of tons of American obese blubber jiggling on the hoof in our country. How many look on this situation as not only a health problem, but demonic evil on parade??? (OOPS! musn’t say anything that will dampen consumer demand!!)

  • Bob Smietana

    Deacon John. I think you give demons too much credit. A sedentary lifestyle and too.many carbohydrates are to blame

  • Chris

    Bob should consider submitting this piece to the Amy Foundation for consideration: http://www.amyfound.org/amy_writing_awards/amy_writing_awards.html

  • Amy Everpean

    How great is it that he lost so much weight! He is an example to us all! My doctors scribe from http://www.scribeamerica.com/outpatient_benefits.html helped me figure out a weight loss plan that I can stick to. I’m just starting, but already feeling so much better!