Read the latest HealthWatch newsletter:  Newsletter 116, Summer 2021

Pitfalls of medical journalism

Leading medical journalist Annabel Ferriman, winner of the 1997 HealthWatch Award, entertained members at HealthWatch's ninth Annual General Meeting in October when she explained the factors which can conspire against media reports being quite as accurate as health professionals would like them to be. Her talk is summarised here.

Pitfalls include the pressure to produce, the need to be first, the search for simplicity, the media's dislike of neutrality and commercial and political pressures. I'm going to confess that I have fallen into all of them.

The Pressure to Produce

Newspapers are not universities. They don't pay journalists to research into medical matters, fully inform themselves and then occasionally impart some of their wisdom to the British public. One day a journalist is a general reporter; the next, he or she is medical correspondent. From that day onwards, she's expected to under-stand the most complex issues and translate them into comprehensible language for the lay reader. Moreover; most of the time points are won only for disclosing information and producing copy, not for deciding that a story should not be published because it's without foundation or overblown. Experienced medical journalists who've seen dozens of breakthroughs and scares and who suggest to their news editor that the latest is not worth covering, are likely to be branded negative or stale or lazy.

For me and others who work on weeklies, or who are feature writers rather than daily journalists, the problem comes when you sell an idea to the news editor or features editor that you then cannot "stand up". When you sell it, you have usually only half-researched it and often, on further research, you discover your first impressions were wrong.

An example: I sold the idea to the medical editor of The Independent that it was a scandal that men were not being screened for prostate cancer; but discovered on further research that the issue was rather more complex. I could hardly then sell the idea that it was a good thing that we are not screening everyone for it, because that is a non-story.

This is a well-known phenomenon in journalism known as the 'one 'phone call too many'. That is, you've made a 'phone call that has knocked down your whole story. What do you do? Suppress the knowledge and pretend you never made it? Sometimes that happens. Or include the qualifying statements in paragraph 24, so that it's not too obvious that your whole story is somewhat flimsy.

The need to be first

This can result in dangerous half-truths. I have also been guilty of this: witness my piece on discovering the gene for schizophrenia. A chap at the Middlesex thought he had done so, I wrote it up and, as quite often happens, it was a false dawn. The search for simplicity.

When I first started in medical journalism, I was told by Michael O'Donnell that there were only three medical stories: the major breakthrough, the major scare and the major scandal.

The search for simplicity (usually based on the assumption that your reader has a 50-second attention span) often means that complicated stories are over-simplified to the point of nonsense.

But this need for simplicity has another side to it. Editors and readers love nothing better than the story which suggests a lot of clever scientists have been working away for years to discover the key to a healthy life; or a cure for cancer; or the answer to multiple sclerosis. And then along comes a patient, or alternative medicine practitioner, who discovers that all that scientific research was quite unnecessary, that medics had been overcomplicating things and the answer was quite simple. The media's dislike of neutrality.

Newspapers and television producers love to name the guilty men. Doctors, scientists and drug companies are often cast as the villains; the poor long-suffering patient as the hero or heroine. News editors don't tend to like stories that say: on the one hand this and on the other hand that. I was quite good at those, but they were usually put on page 10, so I didn't get many points for that.

I recently discovered that the Hammersmith were planning to offer pre-implantation diagnosis for couples carrying the breast cancer gene. I tried to write a completely neutral story, but it ended up with the headline, 'Breast cancer embryos may be culled'.

Commercial and time pressures

The fact is that most journalists are inundated with press releases every day, pushing this or that product, drug, cure, book or message. It is very easy, if you are up against a deadline, simply to reproduce a press release that you have been sent, without giving it the scrutiny that you should. I have seen press releases reproduced almost verbatim by journalists, for example a particularly idiosyncratic introduction to a Department of Health release on skin cancer was recently reproduced word for word in the Guardian. In this case, not many people would find it sinister. But it shows how easy it can be to manipulate the press.

Some PR firms spoon-feed journalists and are rewarded by column inches. I had to produce a column very quickly for the Telegraph recently, and there happened to land on my desk a long press briefing about bedwetting. It even had the magic words, 'We have a case study which could be of some interest.' I am slightly ashamed to say that I used a great deal that was in the briefing, inter-viewed the case study and banged out 1,200 words in no time. My only defence is that I had very little time, and that I did include a lot of advice about behavioural ways of tackling bedwetting, as well as the fact that there is now a good pill available.

In the light of the strong pressures working against good medical journalism, it is something of a miracle that medical coverage is as good as it is.


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