Alan Taman - Reporting on our Health Services - NUJ Masterclass
Ask not for whom the bell tolls. Or where. Or why. But, sooner or later, it could be for you. And it could be happening because another hospital care scandal is taking lives - but not being reported, or is made public later than it would have, or is reported badly. And that's something the NUJ should be trying to stop.
The NUJ Masterclass - Reporting on our health services (http://www.nuj.org.uk/innerPagenuj.html?docid=2874&string=reporting%20on%20our%20health%20services) - held on 11 April was damning of the way the 'New' NHS in England has been set up. John Lister (Coventry University lecturer in journalism and organiser for Health Emergency (http://www.healthemergency.org.uk), the campaign to prevent hospital closures) described its labyrinthine structure and how there were, now, grave doubts about which bits of the new beast were accountable - or even whether they had to be. Sentiments echoed by Branwen Jeffrys, BBC health correspondent, and Shaun Lintern, the reporter on the Express & Star in Stafford who broke the Mid Staffs scandal story.
Shaun's story was particularly compelling. His editors at the E&S had initially allowed him to spend all of his time on the Mid Staffs Inquiry for a year, making him health correspondent to do so. But then the questions started - despite the fact that Shaun was still filling the paper with appalling tales of lapsed care and people dying needlessly as the hapless Trust management made the Trust jump through financial hoops to gain the 'gold star' of Foundation status. 'Do you have to go?', 'Can't you cover this as well?'. Shaun left the paper shortly after that, head-hunted by the Health Service Journal, and critically his post has not been filled. In fact, his former colleagues at the E&S still ring him and ask his advice on health stories.
A pattern of declination which, the meeting felt, was almost certainly reflected nationwide - especially in print. In this branch's area, we've lost 2 of the 3 print health specialists we had a few years ago and the third has to cover other areas as well as health. There remain the health elite in the specialist journals, such as the HSJ and the Nursing Times, and broadcasting so far has held on to most of its health reporters. There are still many excellent freelance health writers. But there probably isn't the specialist coverage there used to be - and the next hospital scandal is far more likely to be outside London, with its specialist hospitals, as not. Who will be there to notice?
The concern over coverage was matched by one for standards. With more non-specialists having to cover health and fewer specialists on hand, there was a danger of poor reporting as well as missing stories completely. Example: MMR and measles. The trend towards journalists acting as gatherers of information on line and monitors of 'UGC' (user generated content) was described by Paul Bradshaw, a Birmingham University lecturer in online journalism. His online resource [www.helpmeinvestigate.com/health] was helping to ensure standards were kept up, and there are other resources (eg www.europeanhealthjournalism.com). But the meeting felt there needed to be more.
Including health PRs was seen as equally important. More journalists are switching to health PR, yet many have to work alone or in small teams, without peer support and at the mercy of NHS management ideas about what constitutes 'loyalty' when working with journalists. It can be almost impossible to retain professional standards in those circumstances, let alone 'tell truth to power', and the union could certainly offer a great deal of support.
A determination to campaign for higher standards in health reporting, create and develop resources on health which all journalists covering health could use, and contact and support health PRs has so far resulted in an agreement to survey health specialists and PRs nationally, publicise the campaign both nationally and at branch level, and start to build good resources.
If you cover health either in house or as a freelance and want to know more or can help publicise the campaign, please contact Alan Taman (firstname.lastname@example.org), Birmingham & Coveentry Branch Vice-Chair.