A couple of weeks ago, I was answering questions about health journalism at a patient involvement seminar run by the charity Bowel and Cancer Research in London. The participants did not have a high opinion of journalists – at least it seemed that way. Wasn’t it true that they made up stories? Why did they say one thing one week, and contradicted it the next?
I had some sympathy. I remember, a few years back, that a national newspaper ran stories saying that meat both caused bowel cancer and wasn’t linked with bowel cancer on consecutive days.
But as the seminar went on, I found myself becoming increasingly passionate about the need for good journalism. Without reporters shouting about things, I argued, politicians, policy makers and even scientific institutions get stuck in old science, old assumptions, old complacencies. The participants, in turn, began to reveal their own appreciation of the way journalists had raised the profile of important cancer issues.
No true journalist makes up a story
This year I’ll be on the judging panel for the European School of Oncology’s Best Cancer Reporter Award for the sixth time running and, with the deadline for entries just a couple of weeks away, I’ve been thinking more about what a good cancer journalist actually is. No true journalist (I reassured the patient representatives at the seminar) actually makes up a story. But journalism isn’t simply about telling the truth.
The good journalists – the ones who get on the shortlist for the ESO BCRA Award – are the kind who will find out something that others can’t be bothered to look for. They’re the ones who’d rather not be told what to write, and will go to their editor with something different – beyond the run-of-the-mill game of copy-cat that national publications and broadcasters play. They’ll argue and fight to get that story published, even if the editor thinks it sounds a bit too serious (as happens very often).
And, if they’re writing about cancer, they’ll do it because they believe it’s important – because people’s lives and the quality of lives are at stake.
Making a difference
There are a lot of those kinds of journalists around and we see a good representation of them every year on the BCRA shortlist. They’ve produced demographic investigations into why poorer people die of cancer more frequently than affluent people; level-headed analyses of breast cancer overtreatment; a portrait of the neglect surrounding the growing cancer crisis in developing countries; and much much more – all in the mainstream media reaching thousands of people.
You can find past winners and their stories here.
I can guarantee that every one of the past BCRA winners and shortlisted entries has made a difference: whether it be to one individual reader, or to thousands of people with cancer by helping spark a change. Journalists aren’t saints, but the cancer community does desperately need them. Which is why, if you work in cancer, I’d encourage you to publicise the Best Cancer Reporter Award to any media contacts you have; and if you’re a journalist producing material about cancer, please enter. We need to show the world how good you can be.
You can find details of how to enter the BCRA 2015 here.
Best Cancer Reporter Award winners (2012-2014). Please click on the photos to view their stories.