Monday, March 12, 2012

Quit it with the puns in media stories about eczema

Have you noticed that newspaper editors tend to choose what they think are funny titles for stories about eczema?

The latest that I've seen: "The itchy and scratchy show," courtesy of the Ottawa Citizen.

This annoys me.

Why? Because eczema is no joke to me.

Writers almost always use humor to show disrespect. That's why humor is the weapon of rebels in repressive regimes like the USSR & why those regimes ban books like "The Master and Margarita." But when you're not a rebel, you're a bully. And the victim of the humor has the right to decide the difference.

So some editor at the Ottawa Citizen is dissing me. Us. Is this deliberate?

Nah, he or she is just lazy. The story that follows the title, after all, is serious. But editors need to choose titles that are short, relevant, and grab the attention. That's why they resort to cliches. Lord knows, in my writing and editing career, I have been guilty of doing the same thing.

Cliches call up a whole host of tired, familiar associations, George Orwell said, "like cavalry horses answering the bugle." The itchy and scratchy show. The Simpsons. People with eczema are always scratching! Isn't it funny. Well, not really, but from the editor's perspective, their job is done.

Disrespect, though, means people less likely to take eczema seriously as a medical condition. It's been shown to reduce quality of life as much as diabetes. Would you laugh at someone with diabetes? Would you write "Victory in the bag for colostomy patients"? "Amputees stumped by latest setback"? Maybe, if you work for a British tabloid, but we know how much integrity those people have.

I've decided this is an us-and-them issue. Where is it OK to joke about eczema? Within the patient community, where we have to live with the condition. The National Eczema Association uses a bunch of cringe-worthy puns as titles for their stories and features. And thanks to the Citizen, I myself was inspired to use "the itchy and scratchy show" as an idea for a kid's onesie in a contest Jennifer is having on her blog It's an Itchy Little World. We own eczema, so we've earned the right to choose how we talk about it.

But the media? Odds are, you don't know what it's like to live with eczema. So write serious titles. It works for the New York Times.

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