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NUJ promises more help for health journalists and PRs

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23 April 2014

The NUJ’s campaign to improve health journalism received a boost in the arm at the Delegates’ Meeting in Eastbourne – and the promise of continuing treatment.

A motion passed by DM called on the union to educate and stimulate debate about the challenges of reporting on the NHS and the key issues of public concern, such as the governance of hospitals. The union also agreed to support and organise NHS public relations officers to help them do an effective job of informing the public about the running of their health services.

The motion called for the setting up of a central resource and for the NUJ to promote more training for health journalists, as well as looking at ways of using this model in other specialist areas.

At a fringe meeting on health journalism and PR, freelance health journalist and former NHS PR Alan Taman reported on the survey of health journalists carried out by the NUJ last year. Although the number of respondents was small (20), the findings reflected those of much wider research carried out for the European Federation of Journalists across Europe.

The survey showed very few health journalists had received training in their specialism and that pressures of time meant some stories were being published unchecked, plus there was no scope for investigative work.

A survey of  PRs working for the NHS showed that one in six of those responding (more than 80 did so) felt they had been asked to act unethically by someone they worked for.

Alan Taman said:

"The survey of health writers showed a strong relationship between age and the number of years the respondents had been working in health journalism; these were specialists. Yet only six said they had received specialist training and only a half said they had had previous experience in health care or science.  All but two said they had undertaken their own training and research for the job. 
"Three-quarters said they did have enough time to carry out checks when writing stories; but that means a quarter did not. That is churnalism, which is bad enough for a general reporter, but for specialists, reporting on a subject that will affect people’s lives directly – their own health – that is way too high. 
"Theoretically, that means up to one in four of health stories had not been checked. I can only hope the theory isn’t matched by widespread practice; but it doesn’t look good."

Alan said the picture of creeping churnalism was reinforced by the fact that a quarter said they could never work off diary, despite all but four of them saying they felt their boss (the news editor) did understand their role. This means that the sort of investigative journalism which revealed the scandal at the Mid Staffordshire hospital by reporter Shaun Lintern is not being done. The survey also revealed that eight of the respondents did not understand the NHS reforms, which given they were specialist reporters was a worrying finding.

Alan Taman said:

"Almost three quarters called for better understanding and more training as ways of improving their field. The case for better training and support for health journalists could not be stronger."

The call was backed up by John Lister, health campaigner and researcher, whose work had highlighted a lack of training across Europe. John called for a network of support and resources for health journalists, adding that one of the aims of the forthcoming "First do no harm" international conference on health journalism and PR to be held in Coventry in May was to look as these issues.

The situation for health PRs was also highlighted at the meeting. Alan Taman’s research showed one in six of the NHS PRs responding (over 80 did so) said they had been asked to act unethically by someone in the NHS.  All of them felt that a supportive framework –  similar to the ethical codes for health professionals – would be a good way of guarding against this. The PR's role was very closely defined by the relationship with the hospital's chief executive.

He said:

"This paints an ugly picture for NHS PRs if they are placed in a situation where they are under pressure not to be completely open; especially as the Care Bill is planning to make it a criminal offence for NHS staff to mislead the public about health information.
"The very people the NHS is relying on to be its voice – the PRs – will be under intolerable pressure, with no support behind them. How likely is a culture of “openness” going to be in that situation? And whose neck is it likely to be? PRs in health need just as much support as reporters."

Tags: , health journalism, NHS, specialist writers, DM2014, broadcasting, pr, efj