Newscast Punches up Drama of Insulin Pump Theft


Sometimes, local news stations can overdramatize issues surrounding Type 1 diabetes in their coverage. That seems to have been the case with a North Carolina news station that reported on a recent theft of an insulin pump in Durham.

Read “TV Report Gets Blood Sugar Management Completely Wrong.”

WTVD ABC-11 News did a series of reports on the theft, and at first glance. According to the coverage, a man with a substance abuse problem was caught on surveillance video trespassing on a neighbor’s porch. Then, off camera, he stole the insulin pump of a five-year-old with Type 1 diabetes off the porch, a crime for which he later confessed.

The news station did three reports on the incident – the first documenting the pre-Christmas crime, the second detailing the capture of the suspect, and the third a dramatic jailhouse interview. The coverage included grainy surveillance video, an interview with the “victimized” family and their child with Type 1, a rambling interview with the broken-down suspect in jail, and an in-court scolding in which the judge colorfully said the suspect would give “the Grinch a bad name”. In other words, ratings gold!

Read “The Type 1 Diabetes News Consumer’s Handbook.”

A theft of an insulin pump is, by its nature, dramatic, but the news reports might have added a bit more drama than necessary. The central problem was that it was never made clear whether the thief took the child’s only insulin pump.

In the intro to the first report, a news anchor describes the thief stealing “a bag that contains an insulin pump for a five-year-old boy”. Reporter DeJuan Hoggard begins his report by speaking in generalities of Christmas package theft, before adding, “For one five-year-old Durham boy, things could have been a lot different if his family was not prepared.”

(You can watch the initial report here.)

Okay, pause. With the information viewers have at this point in the news report, it would be easy to assume that the thief took the insulin pump the boy was using.

Except things get a bit more muddy when the reporter interviews the family. The father, describing his feelings, says, “I don’t know if ‘violated’ is too strong of a word; I was just really annoyed. It just really rubbed me the wrong way.” Does this sound like someone who is scrambling to find needles to restart multiple daily injections for his child, whose blood sugar is skyrocketing? Not exactly.

Hoggard then brings the drama in his narration, saying that the child has Type 1 diabetes and adding, “Without the pump, things could have been a lot worse if they weren’t prepared.”

At this point in the report, though, it almost feels as if the family tries to correct the reporter in his questioning. The mother says, “If it was insulin that was delivered that he stole, yeah, we would have to scramble to get to an all-night pharmacy and get insulin really fast.”

We then cut to the five-year-old boy, who provides on-camera evidence against the implication that the thief had stolen his only insulin pump. The boy says, “That means I would have to have shots.” (And he does this in an adorable voice, I might add.)

For a young English speaker, the boy clearly uses the conditional tense of the verb “to have”, not the future tense or the past tense. In other words, he doesn’t have to go back to shots (one assumes he still boluses); he just would need to go back to shots if he didn’t have his insulin pump.

Hoggard might have thought the family was just being stoic, because he begins his wrap-up of the story by saying, “Surprisingly, the family is optimistic while all of this is going on.”

Maybe that’s because they still have an insulin pump?

It would be several days until the pump was returned. In the third report that includes the dramatic jailhouse interview, reporter Timothy Pulliam says, “The boy is doing fine.”

By email, I contacted Pulliam, who also put me in touch by email with Hoggard. Pulliam said that the insulin pump that was stolen was in a “new, unopened package.” Hoggard added, “(T)his was a spare/replacement insulin pump. It did not cause any immediate hardship when it was stolen.”

So there you have it – this was either a second pump or an upgrade (attempts to contact the family for this story were unsuccessful). The theft was infuriating, but not life-threatening.

By email, I asked Hoggard, “Question – why wasn’t that mentioned in the reports? It sounded as if (the thief) had stolen the pump the child was actively using.” I received no response.

We can hope that the reporters made this error in tone because they did not quite understand exactly how insulin pump therapy worked, not because they wanted to punch up ratings at the expense of people with Type 1 diabetes.

You can view the other two reports of this series here and here.

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Craig Idlebrook is a past editor for Insulin Nation, Type 2 Nation, and Información Sobre Diabetes. He is now the community engagement and content manager for T1D Exchange.

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