I think I need to go into further depth about the NYT gluten story. My objection to it, and my ire, really stems from the fact that I’ve seen a lot of similar pieces in the Times recently. See, it’s a trend story masquerading as fact-based journalism. Real journalism would have stats and research on the number of people with celiac disease, the number of gluten-free products available, and the number of people who do not have celiac disease but claim some other sort of gluten sensitivity. But it doesn’t. It’s just fluff, and the Times is passing it off as substance.
Don’t get me wrong: I love trend stories. They’re fun, they’re a great way to discuss unquantifiable changes in popular culture, and they’re occasionally insightful. They may even help point to areas that need further study. They are also a lot quicker and easier to write than real research-driven journalism, and that’s their downfall, because it’s tempting to write a trend story when you’re on a deadline and need something to fill up a page. It’s totally fine to write a trend story about lipstick colors, but when it comes to a serious issue like celiac disease, drug abuse, or teenage sex (those last two are particularly hard to research and particularly prone to alarmist trend stories.) It’s one thing to write a trend story, but it’s not OK to put it in a real news section and let it pretend to be real news.
Second, I made the mistake yesterday of mocking “crazy,” implying that it was not a real illness. Crazy is a serious problem, and if crystals, blue-green algae, or reiki help your symptoms, that’s just super. But just as trend stories should not be confused with journalism based on research and facts, people suffering from crazy should not be confused with people suffering from other illnesses. The NYT story managed to conflate people who suffer from an inconvenient and probably psychosomatic gluten sensitivity and those who suffer from a clearly defined and probably genetic gluten sensitivity that damages the intestinal cilia. That’s a mistake which trivializes both the neurotic, who are genuinely suffering from something (not gluten-related, but something nonetheless) and people with celiac disease, who are suffering from celiac disease.