Spike the sensation

The media are very powerful. A tabloid lead in the morning may be
picked up by BBC Radio 4’s Today programme and then by
Newsnight. It is a pity, then, that some of our tabloid
newspapers do not try to give a more balanced account of asylum
seekers because, if they did, we can be sure that ministers would
waste no time in ordering their advisers to find a way of dealing
with the problem.

Media theorists argue that we are now a media-savvy citizenry, well
able to decode what we read, hear and see, and to make our own
choices about what to believe. But, if the media were not
influential, why would politicians try to manage their reputation
in the news? No one who has followed the Hutton inquiry into the
death of weapons inspector David Kelly could be left in any doubt
about the intensity with which the government cares how certain
news media report its activities.

Asylum seekers are not alone in being subject to partisan coverage
in the newspapers. A study of how the news media report health
issues, Health in the News, has just been published by the
King’s Fund.1 It examines the relationship between
proven risks to health and patterns of reporting. Which
health-related stories received the most coverage?

Interviews were conducted with leading health experts,
policy-makers, reporters and editors, and researchers analysed
health-related stories in three BBC news programmes (the Ten
O’Clock News
, Newsnight and Radio Five Live’s 8am
News Bulletin
) and three national daily newspapers (The
, the Daily Mail and the Daily

Experts and policy makers were almost universally dissatisfied with
the way in which health issues were reported. They said that the
gravest risks to public health, such as smoking, alcohol, obesity
and mental illness, received negligible coverage. But stories about
issues that they considered posed little or no threat to health,
such as “crises” in the NHS and unusual “scares” such as severe
acute respiratory syndrome, dominated the news. They did not expect
proportional coverage, but they wanted more scrutiny of the
imbalance and more responsible journalism.

The content analysis confirmed their impressions. The most serious
health risks received the least coverage: 4,741 people died of
alcohol-related conditions for every BBC news story surveyed, while
there were three stories for every individual who died from vCJD,
the human variant of mad cow disease. This crude “deaths per story”
count was not intended to be definitive, but to provoke a debate
about the correlation between risk and reporting.

There was evidence to suggest that news reporting had some
influence over human behaviour and the government’s health policy
agenda. Media “scares” about risks associated with contraceptive
pills had, on two occasions, been followed by higher rates of
pregnancy and abortion, both carrying greater health risks than the
pill itself. Department of Health officials confirmed that media
denigration of the NHS in 1999-2000 influenced the government’s
decision to inject massive new funds into the service.

Reporters and editors all agreed that news values, the criteria by
which stories are selected, should remain paramount. All favoured
stories that were fresh and momentous, with dramatic words and
pictures. But beyond that, news values varied substantially between
different media and journalists. One said: “News is what my editor
says it is. And when I am duty editor, it is what I say it is.”
News did not follow a universal set of rules.

More public debate, more self-awarenesss on the part of
journalists, and more canny presentation of stories by experts and
politicians could lead to a better balance, the report concluded.
So there is room for manoeuvre. The BBC has just issued guidance to
encourage more responsible reporting of risk. The Guardian recently
reminded its readers that most journalism was “partial, hasty,
incomplete, invariably somewhat flawed and inaccurate”, so
newspapers, too, should put their house in order. The tabloids may
never change, but there is some cause to hope for a closer match
between patterns of news coverage and issues that most affect
health and well-being. And, perhaps, a closer match between
patterns of news coverage and the truth about asylum seekers.

1 Roger Harrabin, Anna Coote
and Jessica Allen, Health in the News, King’s Fund,
September 2003 available from


Anna Coote is director of public health, the King’s

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