Can Journalists and Health Information Professionals ever be friends?

Arm wrestle

“Journalists are all heavy drinking hacks with no idea about healthcare or scientific research. They just want to sell newspapers and further their own careers.”
– Quote from an imaginary Health Information Professional.

“Health Information Professionals are all boring, mousey nobodies who wouldn’t know a good headline if it smacked their bifocals off their face. They just want to push their side of the story and get more money for their organisation.”
– Quote from an imaginary Journalist.

These are clearly extreme versions of the truth, but it’s undeniable that these two professional groups haven’t always got on. Journalists and Health Information Professionals often seem to be at odds over key health issues, but surely if we can build good working relationships we can help each other and dramatically improve the quality of information that gets out to the general public?

I was very fortunate to attend a meeting organised by the British Library, the Association of Medical Research Charities and Sense About Science at the British Library on 28th May, which brought together a group of about 30 Health Information Professionals with 3 leading health/science journalists. The aim of the day was to discuss how best to connect medical research to public debates as they unfold.

So how can we break down some of the established barriers between these professional groups and work more effectively together? We may not have exactly the same goals, but we can certainly help each other a great deal. After all, Journalists need good stories and Health Information Professionals need exposure. It seems like a perfect match!

Here’s the advice that the Journalists gave to the Health Information Professionals

  1. Write better press releases
    1. Write in human language that the man on the street can understand
    2. Make the story interesting and thought-provoking, but don’t over sell it
  2. Be available for interview
    1. Make sure your lead researcher and experts are at the end of the phone when the press release is published
  3. Contact news teams at the right time
    1. For newspapers that’s 0930-1030, 1500-1600
    2. Give a few days notice for TV and radio

Here’s the advice that the Health Information Professionals gave to the Journalists

  1. Write better headlines
    1. Eye popping headlines sell newspapers, but they can misinform and confuse
  2. Train your staff so they have the skills to read and understand research
    1. Journalists have far better critical appraisal skills now than they did 10 years ago, but more needs to be done to ensure that poor quality research does not reach the masses

Here’s the advice that the Health Information Professionals gave to each other

  1. Write better health information
    1. A great deal of online health information is still inaccessible, unusable and unreliable
    2. Health information teams need to have the skills to be able to find and appraise good quality research, summarise it for their audience, write lay friendly and engaging information and publish it in a format that works for their audience
  2. Strike the right balance between information-giving and fundraising
    1. Too many health information websites make fundraising and donations the priority, often because the PR/fundraising team manage the website!
    2. Your audience should be able to easily answer their health questions first and foremost. Don’t make this harder by putting fundraising messages in the way
    3. Henry Scowcroft from Cancer Research UK stressed the importance of this issue and highlighted that it remains a constant challenge for his team
  3. Use social media to reach your audience
    1. Twitter and Facebook are incredible tools for reaching your audience, whether you want to publicise a campaign, gather user views or simply discuss specific issues
    2. We heard a great case study from Sarah Mehta from the MS Society who have used Facebook and conventional open meetings really effectively to personally engage with their community and manage difficult and often very emotive subjects

The workshop was expertly chaired by Tracey Brown and run like clockwork by the dynamic Sense About Science team. I certainly left the British Library feeling very positive and with a bulging book of new contacts!

Category: News