Trevor MacDonald Can be Bad for Your Health

There is nothing the media loves better than a good health scare story — MMR, SARS, vCJD, the list goes on and on. The first real biggie in my memory was AIDS. There were acres of newsprint and countless hours of tv predicting the demise of mankind (sorry personkind ), and has it happened? No.

But the coverage can have a major impact on people’s behaviour. During the above AIDS coverage (it wasn’t HIV then) I happened to be spending a week at the Department of Health’s press office. A minister had been cornered into saying (by the Sun, I think) that he would have no qualms in drinking from a cup that someone with AIDS had drunk from.

The Sun being the Sun promptly found someone with AIDS and insisted that the minister make good his promise before their cameras. (Ignore the tackiness of this situation, just learn the lesson of not making such damn stupid statements.)

The tea party was duly arranged (what were the DoH media blokes on back then?) and a senior media handler happened to be walking down the corridors of the Elephant and Castle tower block that was the DoH headquarters in those days when he met a colleague coming the other way with “company.”

Being a gregarious type, the senior man stepped forward, hand proffered in greeting as the introductions were simultaneously made. As the penny dropped that here was the AIDS “victim” his right hand did a handbrake turn back to his side.

Even he, experienced media man that he was, had been taken in by the scare stories, that you could become HIV positive by touch, toilet seats, tea cups and all the rest. How scary is that?

A more recent example is the SARS scare. At its height, I took a call from a woman who wasn’t well and had a lowered immune syndrome. She explained that she had family living in Canada who regularly wrote to her. They didn’t live in Montreal, the seat of the illness, but the post passed through that city on its way to her. Was she at risk?

I felt sorry for her. She was genuinely frightened, but when our conversation went down the route of wearing surgical gloves to open the letters, or spraying them with antibac, well you can imagine how surreal it was.

Getting to the point, the media has a massive influence to distort our perception of risk that we often make completely irrational decisions when it comes to health, which is why a new study may, just may, get thinking back on track.

Health in the News — Risk Reporting and Media Influence published by the King’s Fund is an interesting piece of work. One of the authors, Roger Harrabin, is a senior BBC4 correspondent, although it was written while he was on a sabbatical.

It was produced because public health people were saying that the media were focusing on spurious health scares and ignoring the real killers. It analyses the stories on tv and in print and concludes there needs to be a debate among journalists about how they construct the news, particularly the way they can affect politicians and policy-makers.

The pie and bar charts etc are deliberately provocative, or “mischievous” as Harrabin describes them. For example, “deaths per story”. As regards tv, the analysis is that it takes 8,500 deaths from smoking or 7,500 deaths from obesity to warrant a story compared to 0.25 deaths from measles or 0.33 from vCJD for the same.

Of course, the media concentrate on “news,” the unusual to fill the headlines, but thought provoking stuff nonetheless. Download the summary from the website or buy the whole report for £8.

And as for Trevor MacDonald, health scare story culprit-in-chief, well let’s not even open that door.

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