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?