Guardian’s in-house critic: Divisive cancer column shouldn’t be restored to Web site soon

January 16

A controversial column about a woman who tweeted about her metastatic breast cancer was taken down from the Guardian newspaper’s Web site earlier this week because it contained errors and should not be restored until the woman has a chance to tell her own story, the newspaper’s in-house critic said Thursday.

The Jan. 8 Guardian column by writer Emma G. Keller sparked international outrage over its views of Lisa Bonchek Adams, a woman who has stage IV breast cancer and is being treated at a New York hospital. Keller questioned Adams’s copious use of Twitter to describe her condition and her thoughts about her care. Keller described her fascinated reaction to Adams’s long stream of tweets.

“I couldn’t stop reading,” she wrote. But “I felt embarrassed at my voyeurism. Should there be boundaries in this kind of experience? Is there such a thing as TMI? Are her tweets a grim equivalent of deathbed selfies? . . . Why am I so obsessed?”

Keller, herself a breast cancer survivor, is the wife of former New York Times editor Bill Keller, who wrote his own column about Adams on Sunday. That column sparked controversy and a response from the Times’ public editor as well.

As criticism of Emma Keller’s article mounted Monday, the British newspaper took the unusual step of removing it from its Web site. A note from Chris Elliott, the paper’s readers’ editor, or independent critic, said the column was removed because it was “inconsistent” with the paper’s “editorial code.” This statement later was replaced by a note saying it had been removed “pending investigation.”

In a column Thursday, Elliott said there were “many problems” with Keller’s work, including the fact that she used direct messages with Adams in her post without telling Adams she intended to do so. Keller has apologized for using the private messages without notice.

Among other things, Elliott called the article’s headline and subhead “too flippant,” though he acknowledged that Keller didn’t write them. The story carried the headline, “Forget funeral selfies. What are the ethics of tweeting a terminal illness?” The subhead read: “Lisa Adams is dying of breast cancer. She has tweeted over 100,000 times about her journey.”

He said that references to Adams as “dying” and being on her “deathbed” were inaccurate, as were Keller’s comment about Adams’s “seven-year decline” (Adams was in remission for five years). He also said, contrary to Keller, that Adams hasn’t tweeted “100,000 times about her health,” an error he blamed on editors.

He added, “While there was no obligation for Keller to tell Adams that she intended to write the article drawing on the public tweets, I strongly feel Keller should have done so in such a sensitive situation.” He quoted Keller as saying: “I continue to regret not giving her notice about the piece. In the circumstances it would have been the compassionate thing to do and Lisa deserved that.”

Elliott said he has written to Adams to suggest that the paper write a news article “dealing with all her issues” and that she write a response “entirely from her point of view.” But given that Adams’s health issues could make it difficult for her to engage with the paper, Elliott wrote, “I do not anticipate that I will have fully resolved all issues for some time, and I think that we should not restore Keller’s original article to our website until I can do so.”

Adams has said Emma Keller’s column misrepresented her condition and her reasons for tweeting, and it contained inaccuracies. In e-mails to the Guardian, according to Elliott, Adams said the column was “callous.” Elliott also said Adams “does not feel she should have to take time from her treatment to engage with the process of correcting what she believes is wrong in the piece. I entirely understand and respect her position.”

Paul Farhi is The Washington Post's media reporter.
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