Language is important, particularly at times of uncertainty, fear and grief

22nd April 2020

By Gemma Mitchell

From Nursing Times of 13 April 2020

Language is important. As a journalist, I know this only too well. Although I can admit that I don’t always get it right – I’m a work in progress like everyone else, and it’s fine to make mistakes.

At the time of writing, it was Thursday morning; I had flicked through Twitter to see showers of praise being bestowed upon Emily Maitlis.

She had given a rousing speech on BBC Newsnight the evening before criticising the language used during the Covid-19 outbreak as at times “trite and misleading”.

“During this unsettling time, it will be vital for us to all be more wary about the words we choose.”

It was in response to comments made by foreign secretary Dominic Raab following the news that prime minister Boris Johnson had been taken into intensive care with the virus, saying he would “pull through” because he is a “fighter”.

In a video clip since gone viral, Newsnight presenter Ms Maitlis said: “You do not survive the illness through fortitude or strength of character, whatever the prime minister’s colleagues will tell us.”

The BBC followed this up with a long-read written news piece on the topic of battle language in relation to serious illnesses.

As one clinical psychologist sharply put it: “‘Battle terminology’ is most helpful when people are fully in control of outcomes when in a challenging or adverse situation.

“For example, ‘battling’ through work or ‘battling’ your way through the traffic. It becomes less helpful when a person has little control over the outcome.”

While this language may be useful when speaking about coronavirus as a common enemy that we must all work together to beat, it is not possible for an individual to ‘fight’ the disease, it was argued.

I applaud the BBC for drawing attention to this, although I have to say it made me personally feel slightly uneasy that it was the corporation holding the high road.

Only in December, I had felt moved to a certain level of rage when reading an article on the same website titled: “Doddie Weir: The rugby legend who won't give in to MND”.

The article used the very same language that that Ms Maitlis was calling out, and which experts the BBC had spoken to in the news piece had criticised as unhelpful and medically dubious.

It explained how former Scottish rugby player Mr Weir had defied doctors’ predictions of being in a wheelchair within a year following his diagnosis with motor neurone disease three years ago.

“Half of sufferers can expect to live for about 18 months,” added the article. “But the former Scotland and Lions star never left the rugby field without a fight, and he was determined that he would not give in to the disease.

“Three years on, he is still walking, still going to his boys' rugby matches, still battling MND – and on a mission to find a cure.”

As someone with a family member living with MND, I have seen first-hand how it slowly but surely destroys people, determined or not.

This family member served as a Royal Marine, a police officer and most recently a fire fighter, and at the time of diagnosis was training for an ultra-marathon, so strength of character was under no question.

And yet now, he relies on 24/7 care and has lost all independence. Could this really have been avoided by a stiffer upper lip, more fight, or greater determination?

“We must make sure the weapons we pick from our arsenal are done carefully to avoid adding to the pain, discomfort and confusion many are feeling.”

Since working at Nursing Times, I’ve learnt how important language is around nursing in particular, as the profession attempts to shed an outdated image of itself.

Giving an example, the use of the term “angels” at a recent nursing event did not go down well, while last year we also saw a left-leaning national newspaper describe nurses as doctors’ assistants.

The emergence of Covid-19 has also reignited concerns about the use of “hero” language when referring to health workers and the potential consequence of individual heroism.

This is not an attack on the BBC. I’ve certainly slipped up in this regard, and have referred to people “battling” or “suffering” with diseases, or “committing” suicide, but I’m trying to do better.

I was recently disturbed to find out that a fake post had been put out on social media claiming two nurses at a Swansea hospital had died from coronavirus and that three others were on ventilators.

The post had been shared thousands of times and received hundreds of comments of condolences.

The health board swiftly moved to call out the tweet as inaccurate and said the ruse had caused anxiety, unsurprisingly.

During this unsettling time, it will be vital for us to all be more wary about the words we choose and how they will be felt and received, as well the actions we take.

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