Stuff that occurs to me

All of my 'how to' posts are tagged here. The most popular posts are about blocking and private accounts on Twitter, also the science communication jobs list. None of the science or medical information I might post to this blog should be taken as medical advice (I'm not medically trained).

Think of this blog as a sort of nursery for my half-baked ideas hence 'stuff that occurs to me'.

Contact: @JoBrodie Email: jo DOT brodie AT gmail DOT com

Science in London: The 2018/19 scientific society talks in London blog post

Sunday, 25 April 2010

Healthy Journalism: challenges and solutions - seminar from Patient Information Forum, at Wellcome Trust

On Tuesday (20 April 2010) I went to the Healthy Journalism event from the Patient Information Forum (PiF), hosted at the Wellcome Trust. There were delicious cheese straws. On Wednesday I started writing this post on the little Notes app that comes bundled with iPhone, and then emailed it to myself. It's rather useful but my touch typing on iPhone isn't as accurate
as on a full sized keyboard so the fiddly bit is in rectifying the typos, apologies if some are missed.

Seminar - Healthy Journalism: challenges and solutions

20 April 2010, 6pm, Wellcome Trust, London.

* Understand the challenges facing healthcare journalists
* Gain deeper understanding of what constitutes evidence
* Identify ways to avoid misreporting
* Meet up to share and learn from each other’s experiences

Sessions include:
* Making healthcare reporting more accurate - Jacqui Thornton, Former Health Editor, The Sun
* How scientists can help journalists- Ginny Barbour, Chief Editor PLoS Medicine, Public Library of Science
* Evidence: understanding it and reporting it - Andrew Booth, Head of Information Services at the School of Health and Related Research (ScHARR), University of Sheffield

The Patient Information Forum, or PiF, is an organisation that isn't actually public facing. It works with organisations (thinking about it now, I suppose it's like one of those 'business to business' orgs) which produce their own consumer information in a health context. That can include pharmaceutical companies producing Patient Information Leaflets (PILs), the NHS which produces great quantities of patient info, and medical charities / patient groups which focus on particular conditions.

About PiF

  • Do you produce information for patients and the public about their health?
  • Do you want to keep up to date with new developments in this area, develop your skills and feel supported in your work?
  • Is your organisation passionate about the benefits of high quality health information for everyone?
  • Then the Patient Information Forum (PiF) is your organisation.
We were a nicely mixed bag of folk: journalists & freelancers (possibly even some bloggers?), press officers, researchers, people like me from medical research charities who answer public queries etc.

Our task was to look for solutions to the perceived problem that health information, for example how risk of developing a condition or appropriateness of spending money on a drug, isn't always presented in the news media in the most appropriate way. But mostly it was to find a bit of 'common ground', hear others' perspectives and generally try a bit of engagement.

Having an interest in this sort of thing, and an obvious bias - I notice the bad stories more because they generate the calls and emails - I was pleased to get a place.

Firstly, some observations of my own. Often a story is perfectly clearly written but the headline lets it down. Or there's a throwaway brief para which contains an otherwise minor error but in context gives the wrong impression. I don't think that view is going to startle anyone.

What you *might* be less aware of is how wrongly people can apprehend, or remember, a story they've read in the newspapers - although if you think about it, not really that much of a surprise. Probably someone's done some research on this but I confess I am ignorant of it.

People have rung in wanting to know about something they read "last month in the papers", only for me to find that it was actually *months* ago, my record for the longest gap is three and a half years. Memories - not so reliable.

Even where the article is recent, and clear, I've found that some people just get the wrong end of the stick - they seem to misread the article or see something that isn't there. Clearly newspapers and journalists can't be blamed for everything.

Others have written very well on some of the minor and the more serious challenges facing science journalism, looking at 'internal' faults, 'systemic' faults (and the relationship between the two) and outside pressures.

The format was a series of presentations followed by being split into discussion groups - where I had an opportunity to mention these thoughts and hear from others.

Quite a lot of interesting info was generated in this discussion and I'm glad someone else was 'scribing' it for us. Then we returned to our seats, and it was in this interval that we discovered the cheese straws so the second half was slightly munchier than the first.

I'm not going to write about the individual presentations because (a) I think PiF are going to report on them anyway and (b) I've not written them up yet, but I might in future.

In summing up Mark Duman said he felt we'd all raised plenty of issues and problems, but not so much by way of solutions, but this is what he considered to be the key points for consideration and addressing.

1. Quality of press releases
This is where scientists and press offices can make sure that stories are not presented misleadingly at source, avoiding claiming more for the evidence than is warranted. For every example of dodgy reporting it seems there's an example of a dodgy press release.

2. Science training for journalists
This refers to money (possibly) being made available to train new journalists in how science works, following Fiona Fox's report (one of several reports arising from BIS's investigatiin of science and society). There's also the possibility of science training for current journalists but I think it was determined that this might be met with low enthusiasm - it's potentially a bit insulting but few who are on a busy news desk have the luxury of time to get involved with Continuing Professional Development.

3. Self-policing
The example was given of the PMCPA which monitors pharmaceutical companies' infractions of the ABPI code. This sets pharmaceutical company agsinst pharmaceutical company as they try to do each other over, for being a bit naughty in their advertising etc. Doctors can make complaints about pharma reps and advertising too. Ought papers to snitch on one another
when they spot mistakes? Do they do this? Seems a bit unworkable to me.

4. Develop a relationship - take them to lunch
This one is aimed at press folk in charities - make sure you're developing your working relationships with journalists; be available. Having never worked in a press office I've no idea what goes on so can't comment usefully here.

5. Assisting the public in critical appeaisal
This one is probably the most 'deficit model' of the lot, but I'd always thought the deficit model was more about the mistaken belief that if people know more about, or understand, science better then they will like and support it more. In the case of critical appraisal I can't help thinking that this would be a useful skill for more people and I wouldn't bleat too
much if this was implemented.

Suggestions included charities' websites having information on things to watch out for (I'm a fan of this and mentioned Cancer Research UK's ace science blog which does have a section on this) such as 'be wary when you see the word 'cure'. As a corollary there was also the suggestion that journalists might have a list of words to avoid, similar to the highly amusing list of words and phrases local government is not supposed to use when presenting info to the public, including wise avoidance of the phrase 'predictors of beaconicity'. I don't think forbidding words will help and I think 'cure' has a place in discussions on how a therapycould develop, but context is everything.

6. Encourage feedback
If you spot a good article, say so. If you see something less good, say so too. The first presentation, by a journalist, also raised this as being useful. If you're disappointed that an article gives too much weight to one side etc you may find that the journalist who wrote it is on your side and found themselves saying the same thing to their editor, who overruled them.

Your complaint might be a little ammunition against this in future.

7. Asking for links to primary sources - build a demand
There's already been some online discussion on the benefits of linking to primary sources, but it may not get very far if people don't keep up the support for this. It's good if people can check the story behind the story themselves, and if the story is very speculative and hasn't actually been published anywhere then this can be useful info (a 'primary source unavailable' sort of thing).

Living in Blackheath, and loathing the underground, I generally scarper sharpish once evening events finish so I didn't do much in the way of networking but it was nice to see old pals (@ayasawada) and meet new ones (Jen).

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