Welcome to The Fake News Age – telling health fact vs fiction

Miles Watson and Tara Phaneuf

On Friday 28 June, MHP’s Health team hosted a panel event: Welcome to The Fake News Age – telling health fact vs fiction.

Welcome to the fake news age – telling health fact vs fiction

The breakfast event brought together an expert panel and practitioners of healthcare communications to discuss the changing role of science and health media in the networked age, the role of social and digital platforms in better policing fake news, and what the profession needs to do to navigate this changing environment, to help people get the best quality information about their health.

We were joined for a lively Q&A by our expert panel:

  • Dr Christian Jessen – TV doctor and self-proclaimed ‘scourge of pseudoscience’ on Twitter
  • Tom Chivers – freelance science reporter
  • Dr Fiona McMaster – behavioural psychologist and public health expert
  • Rob Dawson – Director of Communications for the Meningitis Research Foundation and Chair of the Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths Public Relations Association (STEMPRA).

The panel discussion was facilitated by MHP’s Head of Health, Kate Pogson, who recently wrote a blog on this topic. The panel offered their experience and insights into the phenomenon, discussed results of a specially commissioned poll into public trust of health information, before offering some potential solutions to the audience.

The Panel on…Fake News

Fake news is not new, but with digital and social media there’s more opportunities for people to shout things that aren’t true – Rob Dawson

There’s never been an age before where people have been more in touch with each other than they are now, and the wealth of information we have at our fingertips now, it’s incredible. But there’s also never been an age where people can cherry pick so much – Dr Christian Jessen

The Panel on…the healthcare communications ecosystem

The journalism industry is dying. Journalists are trying to do more work in less time, they don’t have time to check sources, they just rewrite the press release. It’s not anyone’s fault, no-one is wanting to put out more bullsh*t, but more bullsh*t is getting put out – Tom Chivers

Press officers and journalists are being squeezed - it’s much more complex than academics producing pure golden nuggets of truth and then evil journalists changing it. In reality, academia works on an incentive structure - scientists are assessed on impact, meaning there is a pressure to make their work as new and as sexy as possible, even though this is not the best way to do science – Dr Fiona McMaster


Panellists discussed findings of a poll commissioned by MHP* to learn more about public perceptions and trust towards healthcare communicators.  Findings were surprising and reassuring in equal measure, with medical professionals (57%) and the NHS (22%) being the most trusted groups, but friends and family also featuring highly (14%).  This suggests that despite suggestions to the contrary, there is still a public desire to listen to trusted professionals and experts.  The challenge for us all is how to cut through the noise and reach the people that need it.

There is a die-hard cohort of people whose minds you will never change, but many more people who are not quite sure. We need to help those people on the sidelines. Once you have planted a seed of doubt about anything, you will never remove it - you need to really think about everything you say – Dr Christian Jessen

The Panel on…one piece of advice

Get recognised people to give positive messages and share experiences, talk to your audience at their level - Rob Dawson

Scientists, press officers and journalists - be better at saying something isn’t exciting, put what this study does not show, consider changing the incentive structure of publications (ie publications which will publish a study irrespective of its outcomes) – Tom Chivers

Think about the underlying behavioural models, find common ground of the people you are trying to communicate with - we all want the best for our health, so use that as a platform to start your discussion – Dr Fiona McMaster

Push your message loudly. Have conviction in your messaging and be bold in expressing support for people who are right – Dr Christian Jessen

*ComRes interviewed 2,041 British adults aged 18+ online between 15th and 16th May 2019. Data were weighted to be representative of British adults aged 18+ by key demographics including age, gender, region and social grade. ComRes is a member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules. Full tables at