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A 999 call for health journalism: Coventry 14-16 May

20 March 2014

Alan Taman

There's a major conference on health journalism and it's looking at how we can safeguard this unique area - for the sake of health itself. Here's why.

She got hit by a police car and that made her front-page news. She was 10 years old when she lost her leg, and almost her life several times, but the local paper took up her cause and launched an appeal. That family walked out of hospital with their daughter substantially wealthier than when she was admitted. One of the hundreds of cases I saw as a health PR for a children's hospital.

You can draw that beneficence back along the years, press and hospitals working to change lives for the better: witness Great Ormond Street, almost re-built on the good will of the Barrie legacy and other people's money. Private health care, in its purest form, not the shareholder sanctified plundering of NHS budget masked by that label. People reading health stories and parting with more than their taxes to make healthcare better yet.

But the scope is so much wider than fund raising: miracle cures, incredible survivals, ground-breaking research, astonishing personal achievements.

People finding the courage to ask the right questions and stop a health problem in time, simply because they read about it and it made them think. Or just feeling good because someone got better through the efforts of others.

And yes, the 'bad' stuff: botched operations, management blunders, ludicrous inefficiencies and daft denials. I fielded questions from reporters on those too, and I welcomed them. Accountability is not about feeling comfortable. Especially when you don't want to be seen to be the one dropping the baby because you were charged with holding it safe. Bad stuff happens, and good journalists report on it too. Good PRs know that, and respect it. Bad ones pretend it's somehow the journalist who is acting badly: the easy lie of the 'yes-man'.

Because health affects everyone, and everyone will have an interest in it at some time, I always knew that health journalism had a universal importance that made it unique and far transcended any temporary glory or embarrassment.

The consequences of getting it wrong more so: I've seen staff with years of experience reduced to doubting their entire careers through one badly phrased piece. It's all too easy to scare people, or misdirect them to the unscrupulous, if you don't know how to avoid that. The consequences of bad health reporting are unique as well, and I was always happy to deal with reporters who were unafraid to ask until they felt they knew what they were doing.

Which is the worry. Increasingly, I don't think they can – or, at least, there's the growing risk they might not be able to. The cuts across newsrooms, especially for print titles, have meant a reduction in the numbers of health reporters, and more reliance on general reporters to cover health. Training for this is all but absent. Time allowed for corroboration, if any, is nearly always not enough. This places the non-specialist in an almost impossible position: having to cover the complexities of health with not enough knowledge, not enough time, and little to no support to fall back on.

Specialists have their own worries - other than the apparent one of whether there will still be a specialist much longer. As in every other field, they are expected to do more in less time, running the risks relying on the release alone brings.

The growing ills for health reporting are only part of the problem. The health service itself is under increasing pressure, as budgets are reduced year on year in real terms. Massive reorganisation has left the service more confused and disjointed than ever, for what many believe is little more than ideology and a growing suspicion of creeping privatisation.

PRs working for the health service are charged with acting ethically - yet are increasingly finding it harder to do so, with hospital managers holding them to account and no supporting framework for them to rely on to stay honest. Now, more than ever, the health service needs good journalism to publicise failings – before people's lives are put at risk and before the NHS becomes so undone it will be impossible to restore it.

This isn't limited to the UK. Internationally, the risks and shortfalls affecting health journalism all come back to the risks to health created when health services fail, and journalists fail to hold them to account; or to missed opportunities to change people's lives by getting health messages to them, or blighting their lives by getting that message wrong. In a country where health problems far outstrip the resources available, there is an even greater need for good, effective health journalism. Which is often not the case.

That's what First, Do No Harm, to be held in Coventry May 14-16, aims to cover, and to start to address.

How can we ensure all journalists get the training they need for health, even when they have to cover a dozen other areas? What are the problems facing journalists when covering health? How do we develop reliable resources they can turn to? How can a reliable peer network be set up, so that no one who faces understanding a health story has to do so in an absence of timely advice? What are the issues around health PR, and how can 'spin' be protected against?

With top international speakers and a range of senior health journalists from the UK, this conference promises to be the start of the best chance we have of ensuring health journalism and health PR stay healthy. It's certainly the one chance we have to draw so much expertise together, to try to start something greater. If you cover health, or are interested in hearing how this area of journalism can and must develop, please come to the conference. Make the difference: be there.

More details and booking: European health journalism

The conference agenda.

Tags: , health journalism, conference, coventry, midlands, nhs