Shaun Lintern interview: The Independent's health writer on covering coronavirus (+video)

“At a time of national crisis you don’t suspend journalism, in fact it becomes even more important.”

This is the view of Independent health correspondent Shaun Lintern when asked if the need for the nation to pull together during the current pandemic means journalists should suspend any of their usual scepticism.

He told Press Gazette: “If we’ve got a government that tells the public ‘don’t worry’ when doctors and nurses are saying they should worry, it is our job to get into that debate and provide some reality.

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“I give as one example the furore there has been over personal protective equipment for NHS staff at the moment. We wrote about that weeks ago and put it on our front page.

“We are seeing now the Government is bringing in the army to deliver these supplies. I don’t apologise for holding the Health Secretary and Boris Johnson to account if they are getting things wrong even in a crisis because that’s the point at which a journalist becomes most valuable to society.

“When this is all over and the dust settles, the journalism that was conducted during this crisis can be reviewed again by an enquiry and looked at again by future audiences.

“We don’t know whether future governments will make a different call about protective equipment for staff because we were writing so much about it now and we were holding the Government’s feet to the fire.”

Lintern made his name reporting on the Mid Staffs NHS scandal, in which as many as 1,200 patients lost their lives prematurely, for the Express and Star. He went on to work as patient safety correspondent of the Health Service Journal where he won a British Journalism Award in 2016.

As health correspondent of The Independent since October he has been at the forefront of covering the coronavirus pandemic, where he was the first to expose concerns over shortages of personal protective equipment and intensive care unit beds.

Over the last month he has had more front pages than any other journalist on the title.

Page views on The Independent’s health section are up 2,000 per cent and health reporters have suddenly become the most important journalists in the newsroom.

“In the last month I’ve written about nothing else but coronavirus. It’s dominated every moment of my working life since then and I suspect it will do for quite some time to come.”

At the moment every journalist is, in a sense, a health journalist in that they are reporting on the impact of the pandemic.

So what advice does he have for generalists who are now covering fairly complex scientific issues?

“Most should have health correspondents in their newsrooms and they should defer to their experience and expertise.

“If you are a general reporter covering these issues the most important thing is to not be blase about the facts, do your research… there are incredible resources out there.

“The worst thing if you’re a general journalist is to just bash out copy and stick a scaremongering headline on it…

“We’ve got a job to hold the government to account and to hold the NHS to account… but we also have a responsibility not to scare the public unduly and there is a balance there that all of us have to strike.”

Does he think that fake news as been a problem so far during this pandemic?

“I’ve not seen any stories out there where I’ve thought to myself ‘that’s outrageous’. Most of it is being shared on social media and I think a lot of journalists are now spending their time chasing things down and checking the rumours.

“It’s taking an enormous of my time to check rumours that if they’re true would be incredible stories.

“In the last few days I’ve been chasing stories of doctors dying because they’ve been infected with coronavirus, doctors being mugged at knifepoint for their ID badges… none of these seem to be true.”

On the latter rumour he said: “There are hundreds of posts about this on social media. It seems to have spread like a virus via Whatsapp and its actually scaring NHS doctors and nurses.

“It’s heartening to see the mainstream media not picking this stuff up without checking it…

“People need to be careful about sharing this stuff on social media. A bonafide journalist is going to be the best person to trust for information at this point.”

Covering health stories over the last decade has seen Lintern immerse himself in other peoples’ tragedies. What advice does he have for journalists about how to look after their own mental health whilst covering such an upsetting story?

“I’m not sure I’ve always got it right and I would be the first to say that my stories over the years have affected me at times.

“Whenever you cover a story about a family who have been bereaved or who have suffered in a way that they shouldn’t have done and you have to interview them, it takes a toll.

“My advice would be to make sure you ground yourself in your reality and your world of friends and family. Not necessarily brooding over what you can’t really change.

“All journalists over the next few weeks are probably going to come into contact with doctors, nurses and families who have experienced something really quite awful. Just remember that you are telling their story, you are giving them a voice.

“One of the things that has stuck with me going back to Mid Staffs, when the families came to me they said it was because you gave us a voice and that was really important and helpful. I took some comfort from that as a journalist.

“Although I was writing about horrible things that happened to them they actually felt benefited by that. That’s all we can do as journalists, that’s what our craft is for.

“It’s something I draw a lot on in my role because it can be quite a grim job sometimes covering the health service and over the next few weeks it’s not going to be the happiest of patches.

“But we must all look after our own well-being.”

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