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« New York to ban smoking in parks and pedestrian areas | Main | Has the smoking ban reduced child asthma admissions? »

How the media works

I am so cheesed off about the coverage of the child asthma admissions story (sample headline: "Scottish smoking ban cuts childhood asthma attacks" - Reuters) that I fired off an email to one health correspondent who shall remain nameless.

I will never forget the time this particular journalist begged me to give them an exclusive comment, minutes after I came out of a meeting with the then Health Secretary John Reid. I couldn't say much because I had promised to keep our meeting private. (Little did I know that Reid's advisors were at that very minute briefing the media about our discussion!)

Nevertheless, I helped this person with their story, but has that help ever been reciprocated? What do you think?!

Anyway, here is this morning's testy little exchange:

Subject: Child asthma admissions
Date: 16 September 2010 08:40 BST
To: xxxxx

Disappointed you didn't ask us [Forest] for a quote re the child asthma admissions story.

Did you read the report and see how the figures have been massaged? You might like to read about it HERE and HERE.

It is incredibly frustrating that you have not included a balancing comment.


From: xxxxx
Subject: Re: Child asthma admissions
Date: 16 September 2010 10:10 BST

If you are aware of a study, then please don't wait to be asked to supply a comment in future.


Subject: Re: Child asthma admissions
Date: 16 September 2010 10:40 BST
To: xxxxx

I wasn't aware of it until late yesterday afternoon when the Daily Mail contacted me. Strangely enough we are not sent press releases by the tobacco control lobby for the simple reason that they don't want us to comment. Your job is to be a bit more balanced.


From: xxxxx
Subject: Re: Child asthma admissions
Date: 16 September 2010 10:41 BST

Well, I'm here well into the evening so feel free to contact whenever you become aware of something you want to comment on.

And thanks for reminding what my job is. Much appreciated.


Subject: Re: Child asthma admissions
Date: 16 September 2010 10:46 BST
To: xxxxx

Someone has to.

I'm really angry about this. Do you not read these studies? Your report is taken almost word for word from the press release. I know you're a health correspondent and rely on the tobacco control lobby for stories but it's disgraceful to run such a one-sided story when you must know that the figures have been massaged beyond belief.

One journalist I spoke to told me he was "sceptical" about the figures but his paper felt "obliged" to run the story. Is that [your] position too?


From: xxxxx
Subject: Re: Child asthma admissions
Date: 16 September 2010 10:49 BST

Here is the contact for the Glasgow University press officer who I am sure would put you on their mailing list so you are aware of future stories you may want to comment on. Hope that is helpful.

Er, thanks. (I already had those details anyway.)

Perhaps I'm in danger of burning my bridges with certain journalists but I am really fed up with the way some of them go about their job.

When I made a similar complaint to another health correspondent recently she replied:

Before you get shirty with me, I can tell you that your comment was filed as soon as you sent it. 5.30pm. I assume it wasn't used for reasons of space as it came so late.

I pointed out that the reason she got our quote "so late" was because she hadn't contacted us for comment and we only heard about the story when the BBC alerted us to it a few minutes earlier.

The idea that the tobacco control lobby will send press releases in advance to Forest is naive to say the least. I wouldn't send ASH or the BMA a Forest press release in advance but I'll tell you this - I don't have to because I know damn well that journalists will do that job for me.

So this is how it works:

1. If we are very lucky a journalist will send us a press release with the results of new "research" plus the report on which it is based one or two days in advance (if it is embargoed) and ask us for a comment. That gives us time to read the report, consider our response, and issue our own statement.

2. If we are reasonably lucky a journalist will send us a press release with the results of new "research" one or two hours ahead of the late afternoon deadline that most daily newspapers have and ask us for a comment. This gives us a bit of time for a considered response but it's harder, at that stage, to get our statement picked up by a wider audience.

3. If we are merely lucky we will be asked for a response to a tobacco control story minutes before the deadline when there is barely time for a considered response and virtually no time to write and release our own statement and get it to other media outlets.

4. If we are unlucky journalists won't bother to contact us at all.

In fact, as you can see, some journalists no longer seem to think it's their job to phone us (or anyone else). Instead we're supposed to be mind readers. Somehow, without anyone contacting us or sending us the relevant press release or report, we're supposed to know that the anti-smoking industry has issued a new decree or study or whatever, and we're expected to call journalists with a comment on a story we don't even know exists!!

Yes, I know that journalists are increasingly stretched and don't have time to make the calls they might have done in the past. Some stories, however, demand a response, and today's report about child asthma and the smoking ban was one of them.

PS. Do I think it's a lost cause? Absolutely not. It's a challenge that I enjoy (even on days like today!) and I for one have no intention of giving up. Onwards and upwards!

Reader Comments (8)

Good for you, Simon, that's the spirit! I shall have to excuse my own despair on grounds of not being too well at the moment. Anyhow, so glad we've got you to keep fighting the good fight.

September 16, 2010 at 14:49 | Unregistered CommenterRose

Well said!

Your robust response will leave them in no doubt that it is only fair that if they want a quote from you...then you have to be treated fairly and with respect...and that means having the decency to give you a proper amount of time to frame a reply.

Co-operation works both ways.

September 16, 2010 at 15:26 | Unregistered CommenterDavidR

Are there any journalists anymore, Simon? From what l read there is only 'cut and paste' staff. You see the same story virtually word for word in every newspaper ... you can't call that journalism.

September 16, 2010 at 17:29 | Unregistered CommenterSmoking Hot

Well done Simon. I was also slightly bemused by a headline recently that said something like 'tobacco display ban must go ahead'. Then quoting verbatim a press release from some health group. I would be staggered if the press picked up a Forest press release with the headlne 'pub smoking ban must be lifted'.

Also, as I commented on the previous story, I am slighlty heartned by the comments from the readership of the Scotsman - who are far to bright to accept this claim on face value. Surely the reporterswill also read the comments - frankly such derisive comments about the story must make the reporter (and the paper) look daft.

BTW - what was the take up like of the survey about the ban being a major factor in pub closures? Were you being asked for your comments on a regular basis?

September 16, 2010 at 17:48 | Unregistered CommenterMark Butcher

I am pleased you are on our side Simon. You do a good job that you are right to feel proud of. As a journalist, I would have acted differently. I tend to avoid smoking related stories because I am too biased but whenever one comes my way, as it did recently when our PCT bragged that suddenly there were so fewer hospital admissions and more bed space for the deserving since the smoking ban, I passed it on to the newsdesk with a lecture about balance, and the contact details for you F2C, and Chris Snowdon on analysing stats.

In that last case the story wasn't used at all in the end. I don't know why. My feeling is that today's journalists simply don't have time for research. Very often we fill pre-prepared boxes from a press release or a quick phone call. The industry and the profession is in trouble in my opinion because it is money, skeleton staffing, cut backs, long hours and demoralisation that makes reporters simply not care any more.

When I teach journalism, I always emphasise balance and always use the smoking issue as an example of one that we never see both sides of. I hope that some of those students who go into good journalism jobs remember this when faced with this issue.

September 16, 2010 at 19:01 | Unregistered CommenterPat Nurse

I was going to write a well argued follow-up to your problems, but it all boils down to: "journalists are lazy". There you are. They love well written press releases and the worse the news the better they like them.

September 16, 2010 at 20:39 | Unregistered CommenterChris

The gist of the "report" quoted is how child asthma rates have declined since the ban is it not?

Excusing that it's again Jill "17% drop in heart attacks since ban" Pell, you have to ask how a ban on workplaces and pubs has improved child asthma rates, after all we didn't have any children running around our workplace smoking room or in the pub before the ban, so her point being fucking what?

Not that it has declined anyway, since its a figure massaging exercise at the very least, and following her logic the kiddies must be suffering less asthma attacks being exposed to "SHS/ETS" at home with the smoking parents, so it must follow that "SHS/ETS" in the home environment is of less harm or perhaps more beneficial than your ordinary workplace or pub "SHS/ETS"?

Maybe she could call it "domestic environment passive health enhancing smoke" - I've even coined the acronym for you Jill - (DEPHES), that should save you a few thousand quid on your next submission to the Parliament and the MSM.

September 17, 2010 at 1:08 | Unregistered CommenterJoseph K

The beauty of press releases for journalists is that they are not responsible for the contents. Also, they can slightly exaggerate the contents for effect. This produces lots of comments on the newspaper's website. Whether the comments are in favour or not is irrelevant - the number of comments is the important thing.

Simon does not say in his piece whether or not he has issued a press release contradicting Pell's. Maybe there is some problem with that. It would be interesting to know whether or not such a 'problem' exists.

September 17, 2010 at 3:32 | Unregistered CommenterJunican

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