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Responsible media reporting

Key points

  • We have analysed the media reporting of three incidents involving the deaths of babies to understand its place in a learning culture. The work suggests that the way the media report an incident can affect whether the underlying problem is corrected.
  • Before investigations, such as coroner's reports or criminal investigations, are closed balanced reporting is key.
  • Hospitals need to be open and honest rather than suggesting there isn't a problem or that it is restricted to a single 'bad seed', if they are to encourage reasoned reporting. They should make clear recommendations of how the hospital as a whole can change to prevent similar incidents occurring in the future.

Most people in hospital get excellent treatment but if something does go wrong those affected often want something good to come of it. They want to understand why it happened and be sure it won't happen to anyone else. Medical mistakes can make big news stories with screaming headlines vilifying those 'responsible'. Does this help or hamper patient care?

If pundits and politicians pressure hospitals to show they have done something, administrators may sack the person who made the mistake for an easy fix to the problem. This approach may stop the hospital from addressing the underlying issues that led to the mistake. That could mean the same thing happening again with a different person held responsible. If we're too quick to blame and punish someone, others become reluctant to report their mistakes; without that sharing we can't learn from mistakes. One of the reasons flying is so safe is because pilots always report 'near misses', knowing that they are supported - not punished - even when things go wrong. It's far better for organisations to learn from these near misses than to wait for a tragedy.

We have shown that the way a medical technology story is reported may make a difference to how we think about it, and ultimately what happens. We analysed news stories about three similar incidents where a baby died due to a medical error. The incidents were in three different countries: the UK, the USA and Canada. We compared both what the papers said, but also how they said it. While there is a stereotype that the press often sensationalise stories this didn't always happen. Some news stories did imply that the person who'd made the mistake was the problem but others were more careful to highlight that they were busy people working under stressful conditions and that the mistakes only happened because there were other underlying problems.

Restricting reporting
In the Canadian case, news articles were less likely to speculate on the cause of death before the coroner's report was finalised and the legal situation also affected the information that could be disclosed to the media. These factors, as well as a less flamboyant tradition in the national news trade, may have led to much more reasoned reporting. In that kind of environment hospitals are more likely to improve rather than just blame staff. How the hospital handled a case also affected what was written - being open and honest about a problem is better than pretending there isn't a problem or that the problem was a single person.

Everyone makes mistakes. Rather than blaming, retraining or sacking someone it's far better to try to improve the system. If something good is to come from tragedies, then the press can help by not vilifying people, but emphasising the underlying problems that need fixing. Hospital authorities can help by my making public clear recommendations of how the hospital as a whole can change to prevent similar incidents occurring in the future. Protecting the details of incidents from media scrutiny until investigations are completed may also be a positive step forward and make it easier to effect organisational change. Such possibilities need to be studied in more detail.