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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