Event, Journalism

To tell or not to tell?

Last week I attended an evening seminar on health journalism organised by the Patient Information Forum and held at the Trust. Jo Brodie’s written a decent summary of the proceedings on her blog.

The presentations were interesting, though largely of a familiar ilk: both press officers and journalists are partially at fault, fitting responsible health information with news values is a difficult task, the public needs to be more critical of what they read etc. etc.

However, one point got me thinking. Ginny Barbour, Chief Editor of the journal PLoS Medicine, gave a talk about how scientists can help journalists and how journal editors work to get their stories picked up by the press. Usually, she said, they encourage researchers to write more easily understandable titles and abstracts, so that non-specialists can make sense of them. But in one slide she gave the example of a paper they received on suicides in Taiwan. This paper found that media coverage of charcoal-burning suicides was fueling a steep rise in Taiwanese suicides.

Among the authors recommendations are “introducing and enforcing guidelines on media reporting” to deal with the problem. In keeping with this, Barbour and colleagues were happy to stick with the wordy title, ‘The Evolution of Charcoal-burning Suicide in Taiwan: A spatial and temporal analysis’, rather than push for a change (admittedly, the title and abstract aren’t actually that bad for this paper). Barbour argued that in this case it was of more benefit to society for the paper not to be covered in the media. And her team patted themselves on the back when, sure enough, the paper received zero press coverage.

I can certainly see their point of view, and it’s not as if this is an uncommon thing — there are guidelines on reporting suicides in many countries for the same reasons. However, I had to ask myself if it is really in the interest of press freedom not to report findings such as these, particularly if those results could be useful to others. Would knowledge of these results raise awareness and help policymakers prevent future suicides? Or would it give people ideas on how to kill themselves, as they feared?

It reminded me of something an African colleague said to me at a recent meeting. She mentioned how some of her researchers (she’s a communications officer) were unwilling to publicise a paper containing some quite important findings about HIV in the men who have sex with men (MSM) community. The reason? Homophobic activists had trashed one of their labs a few weeks earlier and the scientists were afraid of a repeat. But what is the point of doing such important research if you don’t tell anyone about it, or if the only people who do are those who stumble across your paper in a literature review years after?

This isn’t the same as reporting suicides of course, but it got me thinking about the responsibility to report scientific findings and when social responsibilities, individual responsibilities and journalistic responsibilities clash. Thoughts?

Event

Remotecontrollification

I know. Horrific, yet brilliant, word isn’t it?

It was one of many puntastic new words picked up at the Nuffield Council on Bioethics’ Annual Lecture at the Royal Society on Monday night. Other terrible words I liked: obesessing, obesogenic (and turning society from that into a ‘fitogenic’ one). Not exactly what I was expecting to take away from a lecture about the obesity debate, but what I should have expected from a lecture entitled ‘Whose potbelly is it anyway?’.

Overall, it was a great lecture by Professor Inez de Beaufort from the Erasmus Medical Center, Rotterdam. She gave an interesting multimedia presentation full of comedy clips,Wall-E and visual and textual puns, offering some light relief from the ethical moral philosophising that comes with Nuffield Council territory.

de Beaufort highlighted and expanded on many of the issues discussed in the Council’s recent report on The Ethics of Public Health. The complexities of obesity are well-known: the problems distinguishing genetic and environmental/social influences, the fact that few treatments bar stomach stapling are proven, that risks associated with it are relative to fitness and age. The talk was essentially a tour around the major hotspots in the debate, including what government and society can do to help — and indeed whether they should do.

What de Beaufort did really well in her presentation was matching these to visual and humourous cues that really hit the point home (or at least gave a cheap laugh if you really weren’t listening). One of the nicer examples she used was a YouTube video of the Swedish piano stairs — an example of a societal ‘nudge’ that might be used to change peoples behaviour, this time by making it fun.

As de Beaufort said, it’s a welcome change from the usual blaming and shaming that we use when talking about obesity.

She also made interesting arguments about individual choice. For some, their size is part of that person’s life, and if a person is happy with that choice who has a right to tell them different. Would you tell a sumo wrestler to lose weight just because he is technically fat? Sure, sumo wrestlers die young as a result of their choice, but plenty of people take dangerous decisions with regard to their physical wellbeing all the time — think extreme sports or even taking out extra insurance cover for a ski trip.

de Beaufort also pointed out how odd it is to think of food purely from a health perspective. After all, it plays a major role in so many other parts of life, from social bonding to mourning rituals (as de Beaufort said, “to think of food like this is to think of sex as purely a means of reproduction).

It’s funny how we’ve come to associate looking good with being good when that is often not the case, she said, pointing to pictures of major world leaders acting ‘athletic’ for the camera.

“It’s a case of ‘Beauty and the obese'”.