Guidelines will balance health scare stories

In a bid to counter media-fuelled health scares, the BBC has issued new guidelines to reporters.

They follow research by Today Programme correspondent Roger Harrabin, which shows media coverage is often wildly at odds with actual risks when it comes to health issues.

Looking at the BBC 10 O’clock News over the course of a year, he found that smoking had a “story to death ratio” of one to 30,000 and obesity one to 15,000 – but for CJD there was a story for every 1.75 deaths and for measles there were nearly two stories for every death.

Harrabin also suggested that the huge media coverage following the Paddington rail crash, which killed 38, may have prompted disproportionate spending on rail safety.

He said: “At the beginning of the century rail crashes were ten a penny, so frequent that they weren’t newsworthy.

The less frequent crashes have become, the more significant each event is in news terms. The safer the railways are, the more pressure is put on the government to make the railways safer. News judgement is militating against the government spending money on saving lives.”

The guidelines take the form of questions reporters are encouraged to ask themselves, including: How safe is this? rather than is this safe?; can we find a comparison to make the risk easier to understand? (e.g. it’s as risky as drinking a pint of beer); and how has the risk been measured and how big was the sample?

Reports by Dominic Ponsford and Ian Reeves

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