Pulse editor on covering coronavirus: 'We are almost on a wartime footing and with similar principles in play'

Pulse is the monthly magazine and digital news service for GPs published by Cogora. Here editor Jaimie Kaffash shares his insight into what he has learned so far about covering the coronavirus pandemic:

As the editor of healthcare magazine Pulse, I can honestly say this past month has been the most intense, anxiety-inducing and emotionally exhausting time of my working life.

But covering the coronavirus (Covid-19) outbreak has also been exhilarating, and I’ve probably learnt more about reporting over the past few weeks than ever before.

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I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that we are almost on a wartime footing and there are similar principles in play as there are to wartime reporting.

I have made all these mistakes at some point, and even looking back a couple of weeks, I cringe slightly at our reporting. But we are all learning from what is potentially the biggest health story of the past 100 years.

Here is what I have learnt in covering the pandemic:

1. Presume the health authorities are acting in good faith

This is perhaps the most controversial, and the one that differs from war reporting. During war, there is plenty of deliberate misinformation from all sides. This is not the case now.

We have got a Prime Minister with a reputation for lying and making decisions more based on his own career prospects than on what is in the public interest.

And we only have to look over the pond for examples of a president acting in bad faith around coronavirus – there was no scientific reason for exempting the UK from a travel ban as Trump did last week. He was making a political point.

However, there has been nothing to suggest that those responsible for the medical side of this response – the chief medical officer and the chief scientific officer – are acting in anything other than in good faith.

They have a strategy, and it is worth availing yourself of it. In a nutshell, it involves maintaining a steady flow of cases so the NHS isn’t overwhelmed at any single point. The video below is a great explainer.

There is merit in the strategy. Because this virus is completely new, we don’t know whether it is the correct strategy and there will be people opposed to it, also in good faith.

What it is not is an underhand way of the health authorities “culling” the population. This kind of talk will undermine confidence in public health bodies and, by extension, confidence in their advice – including the extreme measures they have implemented this week.

Undermining this advice will cost lives.

Without solid evidence that there are ulterior motives at play, don’t give these conspiracy theories any credence.

2. Continue to scrutinise

This is not to say that we shouldn’t continue to scrutinise. It is our duty to. The Public Health England approach might be wrong and the sooner we find this out, the better.

For example, we must ask how doctors are finding it on the front line, and whether their experiences suggest a misjudgement in the strategy. Also, whether there is any evidence the numbers of cases reported are being reported incorrectly and all manner of other questions.

More importantly, there will be operational issues – too little protective equipment for healthcare workers, not enough tests, etc. When this happens, we must report it. Highlighting this will alert the authorities, ultimately saving lives.

And, of course, we must scrutinise the Government’s approach to the economy too, and potentially even their motivations (without veering towards the ‘culling the population’ conspiracies).

3. Avoid personal judgement of NHS workers

Criticism is good, but we should try and do this with as little judgement as possible on our frontline workers. The NHS has never faced anything like this.

The General Medical Council has said that it will take the current climate into account when deciding on whether doctors have made mistakes. Many will have to be mobilised in parts of the NHS they have little expertise in.

Even healthcare managers – often an easy target – will be going through hell. There is no real training for this. They will also make mistakes.

By all means highlight mistakes, but let’s avoid personal judgements.

4.  Consider your sources

Doctors aren’t experts in planning for epidemics, nor are professors of mathematics. We are in a great position where the top experts in preparing for epidemics are currently planning for an epidemic.

This is not to say they are above reproach and they don’t deserve scrutiny.

An A&E consultant can tell you if this approach is overwhelming them more than the planners had predicted. A GP can tell you whether patients are staying away from practices when they should. Even a retail expert can tell you when the public is starting to ignore advice around social isolation.

But if you’re planning a story where a TV doctor says that the chief medical officers have failed to grasp the principles of ­­epidemic planning, then think again.

5. Think whether your ‘U-turn’ headline is fair

It has always baffled me why politicians and Whitehall press offices are so terrified of being accused of u-turning. But they are.

As a media, we have to be responsible when it comes to these accusations. An editor is entirely valid in calling out a “U-turn” if the Government has reversed its decision because it is scared of public backlash.

And their communications over the weekend – briefing Robert Peston that they were thinking of advising the elderly to stay inside – is fully deserving of criticism.

But it is entirely unfair for a paper to accuse health authorities of “flip-flopping” when a decision has been reversed because the scientific data is showing something new. This Imperial College document is long, but explains brilliantly what changed in the CMO’s strategy and the implementation of drastic measures earlier than planned.

This is a virus we know little about. And the public health authorities have to be confident in changing strategy if the data tells them they have to – which it almost certainly will again at some point. And governments have to be confident of doing so without unjustified headlines. Doing this is a sign of strength, not of weakness.

6. There’s no such thing as a miracle cure…               .

…so don’t report any claims.

And in the same vein, vaccines take a long time to develop. Until we hear anything official, don’t get your readers’ hopes up.

7. Inform and educate

We have a responsibility in the coming months.

Regarding Lord Reith’s principles, we need to inform and educate (as well as scrutinise). We can still entertain – people will need something lighter when the real social isolation measures come in – but the pandemic itself probably should not be that source of entertainment.

People are desperate for reliable information. Page clicks will go up naturally. So try and avoid chasing clicks with ridiculous takes.

Picture: Reuters/Simon Dawson

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