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Slate's Quora Partnership Offers a Lesson in Brand Erosion UPDATE

Posted by Abe Sauer on July 26, 2013 06:09 PM

"When I was pregnant, one OB called me disgusting and told me to have an abortion."

The anecdote is from a new Slate.com post titled "Are Doctors Biased Against Obese People?" The post is part of Slate's Quora blog, a partnership set up with the social network-answer service. The problem—as many commenters and physicians have pointed out—is that the piece chronicling a collection of experiences the author claims to have had is preposterous and nearly impossible to believe. But there is Slate's credible endorsement, right there on the top banner.

The post is a warning about the dangers of brand eroding content partnerships as online publications increasingly search for new revenue streams and reach.

Launched in partnership with Microsoft in 1996, Slate was an early pioneer of online journalism. Alongside publications like Salon.com, Slate made a name for itself with smart, in-depth, professional writing and journalism that audiences had previously only found in newspapers and magazines. (The founding editor was the former editor of The New Republic.) Today, Slate is looked to as a paradigm for other publications. The site was purchased by The Washington Post in 2004, giving it the kind of online gravitas that many who laughed at the site's ups and downs, pre-and post-dot com bubble never imagined.

Now, Slate's model of intelligent, timely, counterintuitive, and/or argument baiting content and commentary is a given. From The Huffington Post and The Atlantic to Gawker and even The New Yorker, all incorporate elements of Slate's successes.

To expand its content offerings, Slate partnered with Quora, a member-driven wiki service launched in 2010 that answers questions and also, in its expanded form, serves as a kind of social network. The idea is that Quora provides answers to questions from experts, and these answers are vetted by the community. With more people everyday searching online for answers, the partnership—formed in March 2012—seemed like a perfect match. A smart news site with a smart answer engine. And things seemed great at first, with a former White House Director for Space Policy answering the question, "What Is George W. Bush Really Like in One-on-One Conversation?"

But with a post every day to Slate's site, it's not hard to see how smart, expert answers to unique trivia and questions could start to run thin. But then, it's no crime to sprinkle in a, "What if Anakin Skywalker Never Turned to the Dark Side?" and a, "Is a Cronut All It's Cracked Up to Be?" as long as the site keeps posting, "What Do Interpol Agents Really Do?" and, "What is the Future of Sequencing a Patient's Genome for Precision Medical Care?" The key, of course, is who the "experts" are.

This brings us to July 25, when Slate's question "Are Doctors Biased Against Obese People?" was answered, it seems, by an everyday, non-expert Minnesota woman named Sonnet Fitzgerald. Her answer, including the "abortion" anecdote above, includes a list of impossible to believe experiences. Below, the Slate-posted piece preserved for posterity:

UPDATE: Slate has since removed the post in question and has replaced it with an Editor's note: 

On July 25, Slate published in this space an essay from its partner site Quora titled “Are Doctors Biased Against Obese People?” Because the piece did not meet our editorial standards, we have taken it down.

In a statement to brandchannel, Slate said, "We ran “Are Doctors Biased Against Obese People?” as a part of our partnership with Quora. We did not vet the piece properly before posting it, which was a mistake. The essay did not meet our editorial standards, so we have taken it down. We have published many great articles that originated on Quora and are very glad to continue our partnership."

Answer by Sonnet Fitzgerald:

Oh, Lord. Let me preface this by saying I have had some wonderful and amazing physicians who have treated me with dignity and kindness and have truly looked out for my health. They are in the majority and I am always thankful to them. Unfortunately—and I'm not even that old so this is all experienced in normal doctor visits within the last 15 years or so—I have encountered:

  • Doctors who would not touch me
  • Doctors who refused to treat me
  • One doctor who saw me after a car accident for a shoulder and neck injury and blamed my obesity for it
  • Several doctors who refused to help me with fertility treatment, despite my being in excellent health. One told me, "Your blood pressure is far too high to carry a pregnancy!" (It was measured at 110/60 that day, normal for me.) Another told me flatly, "Fat people have deformed babies." Another one, when I came in to ask for Clomid to treat my polycistic ovary symptom, just handed me a brochure for weight-loss surgery instead.
  • When I was pregnant, one OB called me disgusting and told me to have an abortion. I remember him waving at the table and saying "I'll take care of that right now!" It was terrifying.
  • During my first pregnancy, I lost an incredible amount of weight despite being put on a 3,000-calories-per-day diet. By my sixth month when I was still losing weight, I brought up my concerns at an appointment and was told, "Well, this is obviously the first time in your life that people like you have to be responsible and stop eating McDonalds all day long. It's no wonder."
  • I had perfect blood sugar levels during my pregnancy, but my weight had me declared high-risk, so as part of that I saw a nutritionist and diabetes educator. He told me I was killing my baby. After one ultrasound when she was measuring large I pointed out that my husband was 6-foot-4 so that made sense. He told me he doubted my husband was the father because fat girls are sluts.
  • Once when transferring clinics, I requested a copy of my files. The clinic fought me tooth and nail on that, but in the end someone was new and I got a copy. When I took a look at them on the way over to my new clinic, I saw that the pages were covered in side notes and jokes about my weight, calling me names and making inappropriate comments about my size.
  • When going through a medical exam for immigration purposes a doctor checking my joints didn't believe I was active and walked (at that point, close to 10 miles a day just to get around town, up and down hills) and had no joint damage. She forced my knees back and forth, and when they didn't stick or pop, forced me to do squats and rammed my knees back and forth again until they hurt. She was angry, she kept saying it was impossible that I could have healthy knees.
  • When I tell doctors information like I am a vegetarian, or I ski, or do yoga, they give me "this look": It is trying to hold a straight face but with a slightly raised eyebrow. I know they don't believe me, but whatever. I get that look a lot.
  • The worst though is when it affects my children. When I am the one who takes the girls in to pediatrician appointments, despite the kids being healthy weights (and eating healthy diets, and active in sports) the pediatrician or NP will often lecture my daughters about their weight or try to put them on diets. This is so damaging to them at their age (pre-teens) and besides, it is unnecessary. I am the one who is obese, and it is for a variety of endocrine reasons. My daughters are not. It makes me so angry when doctors try to put my health issues on them, because they see a fat mom and just assume we all sit around in front of the TV all day long scarfing super-sized fries and Cokes or something.

Fitzgerald concludes that this list is "just off the top of my head" and, "There are many other instances if I had time to sit and think of them," but no other specific details addressing the piece's question.

Now, there is some recent evidence that doctors have a bias toward heavier patients. In May, The New York Times noted that a new Johns Hopkins study found that "Doctors seemed just a bit nicer to their normal-weight patients, showing more empathy and warmth in their conversations." The piece even quotes Yale-Griffin University Prevention Research Center Director Dr. David L. Katz admitting that "doctors often show the same biases and prejudices as the culture at large."

The problem is that the Slate-Quora piece was not authored by Dr. Katz (or even the Times report author Tara Parker-Pope.) In fact, the answer makes no mention of the study at all and instead puts forward the purported experiences of an unknown, all under the endorsement of the Slate.com brand name, a name that carries with it two National Magazine Awards. 

It's noteworthy that in the 650-plus comments to the Slate-Quora piece, numerous users have pointed out that the post's author is a known entity to the online community, and not for complimentary reasons.

In online publishing, it's grow or die. Clicks? There are never enough. Slate knows this as well as anyone. But it also knows integrity and page views are not always good bedfellows. Slate has, to date, walked the fine line of click-drawing content without diving straight into the sewer of straight content aggregation or binging on content verticals.

One questionable post does not a poisoned relationship make. But Slate has worked hard to create a meaningful, powerful brand and it would be a shame if its "verticals" diluted that.

Comments

Erica Friedman United States says:

So, to illustrate "brand erosion" you've decided to pick on Sonnet. Way to go to not only not make the point, but to be a raging ass.

Sonnet is a respected member of the Quora community. You're not even on Quora, Abe. As a Top Writer on Quora I'm way more likely to listen to Sonnet than you. At least Sonnet can tell the difference between personal anecdote and business analysis.

July 27, 2013 09:16 PM #

Jean Marion United States says:

UPVOTE

July 27, 2013 09:54 PM #

Abe Sauer United States says:

Hi Erica,

I did not "pick on" the author. I pointed out that Slate's partnership with Quora appears to have some holes which may be reflecting poorly on Slate's hard-built reputation. It appears that Slate agrees with my analysis as editors there have pulled the piece, adding that the answer "did not meet our editorial standards."

As for the veracity of the answer itself, I think the number of comments on the piece speak for themselves.

July 28, 2013 12:18 AM #

S United States says:

Having read the blog in question that allegedly "proves" she's a well-known faker, I'm appalled that it's being used as a legit citation. Her personal response to the question about doctors treating fat patients differently than thinner patients is being criticized for not being professional enough. So why on earth is some unprofessional, anonymous blog that hasn't been updated in years and is full of short rants with no supporting evidence at all -- not even a link -- deemed "professional" enough to mention here?

And if that comment from Shana DC had any validity, I'd be able to find something besides that old, all-pink, poorly-written blog that said Sonnet was a well known faker. There is NOTHING.

But there is this article from 2001 where Sonnet appears in Newsweek, talking about her weight issues:

www.thedailybeast.com/.../it-s-not-your-fault.html

And you decided to take the word of an anonymous commenter and an old, anonymous personal blog over the word of someone who has appeared in a professional publication before talking about the issue of obesity and health care... why, exactly?

July 28, 2013 10:09 AM #

Joe Martinez United Kingdom says:

I am assuming that you didn't check any facts before your sweeping conclusions. For a start Sonnetfakedsuicide.blog has been inactive since Feb 2010. Your claim that this blog was written by Sonnet seems to be based on the fact they have the same name. I look forward to you claiming Kim Basinger is the new President of North Korea.

July 27, 2013 10:00 PM #

Tracey Bryan Australia says:

Hi Abe, I'm a Quora admin (volunteer) but I have no role in the partnerships with Slate, nor do I have any insights into this particular incident. I would put it to you, though, that there is absolutely no point in publishing the particular person's full name in your article. If this person is mentally unbalanced, publishing her name seems unkind, and if not, then it's gratuitously insulting. It detracts nothing from your point - about whether Slate needs to better fact-check submitted content prior to publishing - to obscure the individual's name, and I think it would be a kind thing for you to do so.

July 28, 2013 03:49 AM #

Abe Sauer United States says:

I understand your point and it was for this very reason that I left out any details connected to the name and instead mentioned that this was a concern of more than one reader.

I did use the name for the same reason I reproduced the answer here, anticipating that Slate would yank the whole thing, including the name, which is exactly what happened. Without that record, my whole piece would be meaningless and empty as the Slate page is completely gone, and leave me asking readers to "just trust me" on how it read.

July 28, 2013 05:44 AM #

Comments are closed

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