Analysis

Reporting the pandemic and beyond – dispatches from MHP Health’s Media Roundtable

ENGINE MHP welcomed a panel of the country’s leading health journalists to discuss how reporting during a pandemic has transformed their jobs – both in terms of practice and prominence, plus what to expect from their reports in the upcoming months

Never has the role of the health journalist been so important in deciphering, interpreting, conveying, and interrogating the news. The past 18 months has seen a raft of seismic events in health news: a global pandemic; a health service in crisis; the development and rollout of a vaccine; sweeping reforms to health policy…and health journalists have been integral in explaining what it all means to the average person on the street.

It was in this context that the MHP Health team was thrilled to convene a panel of the country’s leading journalists, spanning print, online and broadcast.  Hugh Pym (BBC News), Ashish Joshi (Sky News), Kat Lay (The Times) and Stephen Adams (Mail on Sunday) provided open and insightful commentary of their experiences of pandemic reporting and their broader predictions for future health media trends, in a conversation chaired by MHP Health Associate Director and former press officer at the Department of Health and Social Care, Jaber Mohamed.

Catch up on highlights from the discussion below: 

Striking the balance – reporting during a pandemic

The panel candidly admitted that the enormity of COVID-19 could not have been predicted when murmurings of a novel coronavirus in the Far East were first being mentioned in early 2020.  Indeed, in the initial days when the crisis reached the UK, the panellists said that the general sense of ‘chaos’ was exacerbated by difficulties around access to sites and officials and the sourcing of robust data.

A persistent challenge media faced in telling the story(ies) of the pandemic was how to strike the right balance of reporting fact, holding truth to power, and interpreting vast quantities of data, all whilst recognising the human grief that was sitting at the heart.  Not to mention the very real personal health risk they ran in seeking the story, for themselves and the people they lived with.  This balancing act continues, with panellists explaining the need to constantly find fresh angles and satiate the public’s appetite to be informed about the pandemic as it lurches from phase to phase.

Doing more with science, data and research

A positive that emerged from pandemic reporting for our panellists has been how data – always essential in the craft of a health reporter, but often a difficult ‘sell’ to an editor – is now in demand and integral to the telling of any story.  This transformation mirrors Government communications during the pandemic, with the appearance of graphs, dashboards and infographics becoming commonplace on television screens and newsprint on a daily, if not hourly basis, presented by scientists previously unknown to the public but are now trusted household names.  People now ‘get’ and want to be told about science and the researchers and innovators who are behind it.  The previous assumption that audiences would somehow be ‘turned off’ by intimidating stats and dry research has proven not to always be the case.  In a piece of advice to the gathered communications professionals in the audience, if the story can be pitched blending the right use of data plus what it means on a human level, it’ll have a higher chance of success.

Pharma’s halo – is it beginning to fade?

It was recognised that the pharmaceutical industry’s reputation received a huge boost in how it handled the pandemic, from its repurposing of existing medicines to treat COVID-19 symptoms, to its role in bringing a suite of vaccines to the public, and many elements of support and innovation in between.  Underpinning these efforts was the industry’s outstanding collaborative work with partners like Government, NHS, small biotechs and universities.  The panel noted, however, a risk that this ‘halo effect’ could be beginning to fade, as perceptions grow that commercial imperatives might be taking over, in addition to a lack of transparency around dealings with governments and medicines regulators across the world.  MHP Health’s Maddy Farnworth recently blogged about this subject in more detail.

What’s on the news agenda?

Our panel agreed that, despite occasional moments when the pandemic news cycle seems to abate, the story will continue to dominate their agenda for the foreseeable future.  The persistent threat of COVID-19, what health system recovery looks like, health inequalities and the mental health consequences of lockdown are all story permutations which look likely to come to the fore.

COVID-19, and its subsequent impact on other conditions, such as drops in diagnosis rates for cancer,may dominate, but other health stories need to be told, not least the major organisational changes that the NHS will undergo as part of the Government’s NHS Health and Social Care Bill.  The panel was honest in explaining that their willingness to cover something ‘other’ than the pandemic will go in peaks and troughs.  A piece of practical advice was to try and get a sense of the mood of the newsroom – either through assessing the wider context of the news cycle or picking up the phone to media contacts – to see whether a story was likely to land amidst the swirl of pandemic stories, or whether it could provide ‘relief’ from COVID-19 news.  Despite the turbulence caused by the pandemic, the panel stressed that a good story – whether COVID-19 related or otherwise – which had the core elements of novelty, a sense of scale, robust evidence and a human element would always be of interest.

For our panel and their peers, the COVID-19 pandemic has been an all-consuming challenge like no other.  The interest and scrutiny in health stories and the demands placed on how they are told has increased exponentially, and with no end in sight, it has never been a more interesting time to be part of it.