Sotomayor’s “Sweet” Side

Coverage of judicial nominee’s diabetes lacks breadth

Over the past week, members of the news media have talked a lot about SCOTUS nominee Sonia Sotomayor’s race and ethnic background. But they have also devoted a surprising amount of attention to her status as a Type 1 diabetic.

As we learned from the coverage of John McCain’s melanomas during last year’s presidential primary, it is important to know any nominee’s health conditions before they step into office. In this case, however, much of the coverage took an overly dire view of Sotomayor’s condition, and many media outlets missed a perfect opportunity to educate the public by providing more information on Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes.

For example, an article at The Huffington Post quoted CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin saying that:

The issue of duration of service for a Supreme Court nominee is critical to any president, and thus health and medical issues are very much at the forefront of their considerations… It would be irresponsible for any president not to make the health of the nominee a major subject of concern, because presidents want decades of service from their nominees.

True. But should Type 1 diabetes concern the president and the public as much as something like McCain’s melanoma? The American Diabetes Association doesn’t seem to think so. In what some articles called a “pre-emptive” move, the association released a statement supporting Sotomayor’s candidacy, in which the group’s president, Dr. R. Paul Robertson, said that:

The advancements in the management of type 1 diabetes have been just amazing over the last two decades and the ability of people to manage their diabetes successfully has been proven. People with diabetes can function and live a long and healthy life.

Most news outlets included this conciliatory remark (or something similar) in their articles. However, some pieces, such as one from The New York Times, ran a laundry list of the disease’s complications, leaving readers to wonder what the ADA’s definition of a “healthy life” actually is.

In particular, a Time article headlined “Sotomayor’s Disease: Will it Be a Handicap?” drew widespread criticism from diabetes blogs for giving the impression that a diabetic might “drop dead tomorrow.” The article mentioned that:

The nominee’s chronic condition is worth noting, since it puts her at increased risk of several serious medical conditions, including heart disease, kidney problems, blindness and nerve damage — and an increased risk of early death. Studies show that adults with diabetes are two to four times more likely than non-diabetics to die of heart disease.

But if it’s worth noting—and clearly it seems to be, because nearly every major press outlet managed to publish an analogous version of the paragraph above—then so is some broader medical context. While Time notes that death rate for diabetic women has doubled in the last thirty years, the reporter should have mentioned that the death rate is only about 1.8 percent—nothing to scoff at, but not nearly as troublesome as other maladies, such as melanoma.

A few outlets did better. Responding to the pessimistic article at The Huffington Post, Newsweek’s “The Human Condition” blog told readers not to worry, while a post at The Wall Street Journal said Sotomayor’s diabetes is a “non-issue.”

Slate, on the other hand, summed up the reasons why we shouldn’t ignore Sotomayor’s condition. The author, Darshak Sanghavi, a pediatric cardiologist and assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, provided a new angle on Sotomayor’s condition, acknowledging her risk factors but also placing them in context with other justices’ medical conditions.

…Sotomayor’s health prospects are unlikely to be more concerning, for example, than those of Chief Justice John Roberts (who suffered a generalized seizure recently), Ruth Bader Ginsberg (who has battled two cancers), or Clarence Thomas (who is overweight). But, of course, there are no guarantees she’ll stay healthy. Though improbable, she (or another justice) could have a stroke, heart attack, or damage to blood vessels to the eyes, causing blindness.

That kind of background, and the medical information that the LA Times gave in an article that addressed Sotomayor’s condition, is particularly useful to readers. When Ted Kennedy underwent brain surgery last summer, for example, media outlets seized the occasion to inform the public about his condition, as well as the broader outlook on glioblastomas.

To be fair, a couple more articles gave similar treatment to Sotomayor’s diabetes. A blog post at Scientific American provided a unique angle by using Sotomayor’s diabetes to explain the commonly confused H1Ac test, which is used to diagnose diabetes. U.S. News and World Report’s blog post by Nancy Shute was on point, using Sotomayor’s nomination to explain Type 1 diabetes to the people that need to know about it the most: parents (Type 1 is usually diagnosed during childhood).

Unfortunately, most articles gave readers a grim outlook on Sotomayor’s condition, leaving the impression that diabetes is less controllable than it actually is. Which is too bad, because many people do struggle with Type 1 diabetes, and could have benefited from broader stories about how medicine has progressed significantly since Sotomayor was eight years old.

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Sanhita Reddy is a former Observatory intern currently living in Brazil on a Fulbright scholarship, studying the media sources people use to find health information.