Letters to the Editor
This site is supported by Health ONEToday, I am happy to report that ...there is a lot less tension between medical practitioners and the media." - Mr Leslie Pang, Editor of the Straits Times/ Sunday Times and President of Singapore Press Club.
"Medical Profession and the Media"
A seminar on The Medical Profession and the Media was held on 15 November 1998 at the College of Medicine Building. Three speakers, representing the consumer, Mr Stephen Loke, Chairman of Consumers Association Singapore (CASE); the press, Mr Leslie Fong, Editor of The Straits Times; and the medical profession, BG (NS) A/Prof Lim Meng Kin; gave their views on the subject. Some active discussion followed at the question and answer session.
The importance of working with the press to ensure correct reporting of worthwhile information was highlighted.
Mr Fong took the opportunity to respond to Dr Lims point about faxing back the journalists work to their interviewees. He said this is not routine, but his journalists do fax back if they need clarification. The session was a good opportunity for the media to meet the profession, considering that Mr Fong is the President of the Press Club. He said that it is not often that he accepts talks on Sundays but he thought it important to accept the SMAs invitation to speak. All who attended would agree that the afternoon was well spent listening to the presentations, and the questions and answers that followed.
The paper by Mr Fong is published in this issue of the News. The papers by Mr Stephen Loke and A/Prof Lim Meng Kin will follow in the subsequent issues.
DR AU KAH KAY AND A/PROF GOH LEE GAN
MISCONCEPTIONS ON THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN THE MEDICAL PROFESSION AND THE PRESS The paper from the perspective of the press was delivered by Mr Leslie Fong, Editor of The Straits Times/Sunday Times and President of the Singapore Press Club.
Thank you for inviting me to this seminar. I would like to use this opportunity to identify and examine what I think are needless misconceptions souring the relationship between the medical profession and the media.Misconception 1
The first is that the media, for some inexplicable reason, has got the medical profession in its gunsight and would grab at any chance to blacken its image either through misreporting or playing up disproportionately isolated instances of malpractice which would have cropped up in any profession. As a result, some doctors have become wary, if not altogether hostile, towards the media. Sadly, there are some journalists who reciprocate with full vigour.
I remember vividly a small incident which, to me, reflected just how bad the vibes were at one stage. It happened some years ago and it involved me. I was in hospital, about to go under the knife to have my gall bladder removed. The surgeon in charge, an eminent practitioner, told me, with just that hint of laughter in his eyes, that many of his colleagues would gladly give up a months pay for the pleasure of cutting up the most anti-doctor of all journalists in Singapore. He was pulling my leg, of course, but, as they say, many a truth is sometimes said in jest.
Coincidentally, when some of my colleagues learned of my impending operation, they offered their commiseration, saying they hoped I would not end up losing more than my gall bladder. They were joking too, of course they were.
Such was the uneasy relationship between medical practitioners and journalists then, a relationship not made any easier each time the media ran a less than flattering story about doctors.
Today, I am happy to report that as a result of effort made on both sides to communicate with each other better, there is a lot less tension between medical practitioners and the media.
However, I suspect we doctors and journalists are still not completely comfortable with each other. Perhaps we never will be, given our different roles in society, our different priorities and motivations. Still, there is no reason why we cannot develop an amicable working relationship based on a true appreciation of the objectives, standards and constraints each has to work to.
Towards this end, I say here and now that we in the media have no hidden agenda when it comes to reporting medical news, the practice of medicine and the profession itself. We are neither for nor against doctors. We have no ingrained prejudices against medical practitioners. We do not put them on a pedestal either.
We see our job as providing accurate information, and fair and balanced comments and analyses, to the public, and increasingly, the public do want more information on health matters.
According to the latest figures culled by professional researchers from a survey commissioned by The Straits Times, 84% of the readers of our Home section want stories on health and medical matters. This figure is second only to the 91% scored for crime stories and way above 46% demand for reports on defence issues. I do not have figures for the broadcast media but I am sure my colleagues in radio and television will confirm that there is a similar thirst among their listeners and viewers.
We in The Straits Times do our bit to meet this demand for information. Up to the end of last month, we ran some 260 stories on health and medical issues in Singapore in our Home pages. In our World news pages, we carried 230 health and medical stories, covering issues ranging from medical ethics to development of new drugs and treatments. Not included in this figure were the snippets grouped under the column, Medical Notes, which is devoted to informing readers of new medical advances or results of studies as reported in leading journals.
Now, not being doctors or medical scientists ourselves, we can only fulfill our role of informing and educating the public on health and medical issues with the help of practitioners. We need doctors to explain, to point out trends or developments that will have an impact on peoples lives. Therefore it does not make sense for us to not want to work with them. Indeed I see the medical profession and the media as equal partners, joined in pursuit of the common objective of serving the public better.Misconception 2
The second misconception I would like to clear is that the media loves to sensationalise and make mountains out of molehills. I could spend the rest of the afternoon here arguing about what constitutes sensationalism and what does not. But that would be unproductive.
Let me, instead, make just four points. First, the media has to make its reporting of health and medical matters accessible to the man in the street. In practical terms, this means avoiding the use of jargon, simplifying concepts and, where applicable, illustrating with real life examples. We have to inject human interest.
Second, the media in Singapore has developed to a stage where there is no need to resort to sensationalism to sell newspapers or woo listeners and viewers. This is due in no small part to the very Singaporean media environment in which the print media, radio and television are each dominated by a big player.
Third, there is no incentive of any reporter anxious to catch the eye of his editor to sensationalise or jazz up his story and make it out to be more than what it is. Journalistic and ethical standards in newsrooms have risen such that the reporter who strives for impact at the expense of accuracy, fairness and balance is penalised, not rewarded, for this folly. Editors are very mindful that each false, inaccurate, unfair or sensationalised story printed or aired damages the reputation and credibility of their newspaper or station. And there is no way any reporter or editor can hide his mistakes, not in Singapore where complaining has been elevated to a high art, aided by the latest advances in telecommunication.
Fourth, it has become almost a standard operating procedure for the media in Singapore to accord to people who feel they have been wronged by an article, the right to reply. So there is redress for all who feel they have become victims of sensationalism.Misconception 3
The third and final misconception which I would like to address is that the media knows very little about health and medical issues and cares even less. I concede readily that the media, or at least The Straits Times, lacks expertise about medical matters though it does have a fair grasp of public health policies and issues.
This deficiency will remain unless and until young men and women with medical degrees are prepared to become journalists, much as several with law degrees have joined our ranks to help raise the level of legal reporting. I am afraid the prospects of that happening are not good.
But not having reporters who know almost as much about medicine as the practitioners does not equate to not wanting to do a better job reporting health and medical matters. The will is there.
And we believe that specialisation is the answer. We have been working at it. Within The Straits Times, for example, we have assigned journalists to focus on at least one area or subject which we know is of public interest and will make news regularly. By and large, these beat reporters, as they are called, do take pains to soak up as much knowledge about their chosen areas of specialisation as is humanly possible. But because the acquisition of knowledge and experience cannot be instant, it will take time before the system can bear fruit, assuming the beat reporters stay long enough in their job, which, alas, is not often the case.
Indeed the staff turnover in newsrooms at one time was that beat reporters, whether covering health issues or securities trading, were gone before the practitioners they had been cultivating had got to know and trust them. It is a problem we cannot wish away though it has abated somewhat on account of the present recession. We have no choice; we just have to keep trying.
It can be rather frustrating for us as well as those doctors and specialists who had taken the trouble, at one time or another, to talk to some medical beat reporters, only to find that they had later to explain simple matters all over again to some newcomer.
We regret that, very much. But we will press on with building and re-building our knowledge base because we do not want to be cavalier about reporting health and medical matters.
We cannot afford to remain shallow in our understanding of medicine, not in an age when readers, listeners and viewers want to be better informed and will go to the Internet or other sources if they cannot find satisfaction from the media.
We want to keep on improving our coverage of medicine and its practice _ and we know we cannot do that without the help of the profession itself.
Equally, if I may say so, the medical profession needs the media too if it wants itself as well as what it does to be better understood. If the medical profession is unhappy with the way it is being reported, the correct, and productive, thing to do is open up even more to the media, not retreat into angry silence.
I know doctors are constrained by their code of ethics and have to be careful not to come across as advertising themselves or their expertise. But I say to them, and to all those who sit in judgement of their peers on discipline and ethical issues, too rigid, narrow or conservative an interpretation might not necessarily be in the professions best interest. As it is, rightly or wrongly, doctors are already thought of in some quarters as being an arrogant, greedy lot who are disdainful of the need to explain themselves to their patients and the public.
There is also the perception that doctors are loath to talk about the work of peers even when discussion is in the interest of enlightening the public. In some instances, this reluctance is seen by the public as part of an unspoken code of silence that, willy-nilly, contributes to the impression that doctors tend to cover up for each other, especially in malpractice suits.
It is up to the profession to address and counter these impressions if it regards them as unfair and damaging. The media stands ready to help put across its side of the story, so to speak.
I think medical professionals do themselves a huge disservice if in this Information Age, they barricade themselves behind outdated or impractical rules instead of working with and through the media to help the public understand what it is they are dedicated to achieving.It is in their interest to practise constructive engagement. I think I speak for the entire local media when I say we look forward to working with them to keep Singapore better informed.