Ms Donalda MacKinnon
Director of BBC Scotland
Glasgow G51 1DA
5th February 2017
Is BBC Reporting Scotland’s over-reporting and construction of fake crises in NHS Scotland likely to actually increase both physical and mental health problems?
Dear Ms MacKinnon,
I’m writing to you directly as the BBC complaints site is not fit for purpose – short word limits, long delays and a lack of the interactivity required for intelligent debate. The responses I receive are always defensive, evasive, confused and in denial of any possibility of meaningful criticism. I hope you will feel able to respond to this serious topic personally. I note your expressed good intentions:
‘However, there is a significant number still in Scotland whose trust we lost and I think there’s still a bit of work to be done in that regard. I think it’s part of my mission to try and address these perceptions, which may have led to that loss of trust.’
My concern is that Reporting Scotland’s tendency to report frequently, negatively and in an often exaggerated even inaccurate way about NHS Scotland may actually be doing damage to the health of potential patients, actual patients, relatives and staff.
In January alone, Reporting Scotland reported 18 times on supposed problems in NHS Scotland likely to affect patients or potential patients. In the same time, STV News found only 7 such stories. Often the BBC stories had been fed to them by Labour or Conservative Party Freedom of Information requests feedback. I have recorded the details here:
Please see below, the scientific evidence for my question:
‘So not only are negatively valenced news broadcasts likely to make you sadder and more anxious, they are also likely to exacerbate your own personal worries and anxieties. We would intuitively expect that news items reflecting war, famine and poverty might induce viewers to ruminate on such topics. But the effect of negatively valenced news is much broader than that – it can potentially exacerbate a range of personal concerns not specifically relevant to the content of the program itself. So, bombarding people with ‘sensationalized’ negativity does have genuine and real psychological effects. Given this ‘cascading’ effect of negativity into people’s personal lives, should TV schedulers be required to consider such effects when preparing and scheduling programs containing emotively negative content?’
This opening quote from Psychology Today in 2012, in some ways, makes the rest of my article redundant such is its impact but I want to go on to make more clearly my critique of BBC Reporting Scotland’s current reporting of NHS Scotland. First though it’s worth dwelling on the word ‘valenced’ above. What this tells us is that the way the report is phrased is very important. Where words like ‘crisis’ and ‘risk’ are used as they often are by BBC Scotland to dramatise the reports, this can exacerbate the negative effects beyond what a more restrained report on the same issue might do. BBC Scotland might claim it is their duty to report on problems in NHS Scotland but what is key here is how they do so.
What further evidence do I have that long-running and frequent reports of alleged crises can be damaging for both physical and mental health. Well, for the former, I only have today’s (12.1.17) Herald report of new research linking stress to heart attack and stroke:
‘The part of the brain linking stress to the risk of heart attack and stroke has been identified for the first time, researchers say. The findings could indicate that reducing stress has an important physical as well as psychological benefit, scientists said.’
However, with particular regard to the effect of news media and psychological distress, the evidence is extensive and should give editors pause for thought as I hope the opening quote would. There is more:
Also from Psychology Today in 2012:
‘Negative news on TV is increasing, but what are its psychological effects?’
‘We found that those people who had watched the negative news bulletin spent more time thinking and talking about their worry and were more likely to catastrophise their worry than people in the other two groups.’
Further this report from Psychiatry, based on research in Israel, is particularly concerning:
‘The results suggest that a vast majority (87.2%) of the population tuned in to the newscasts and the majority (76.7%) of viewers increased their news consumption compared to normal. Increased frequency of viewing newscasts was associated with reported anxiety reflected in uncontrolled fear, physiological hyperarousal, sleeping difficulties, and fearful thoughts. A regression model revealed that viewers watching the constant newscasts more than usual are 1.6 times more likely to report at least one anxiety symptom compared to those watching at the same frequency or less, standardized to gender and age…… Increased viewing patterns of televised traumatic content, as well as negative perception of such broadcasts, are associated with the report of anxiety symptoms or psychopathology.’
The particular worries triggered by health reports as opposed to the more obviously traumatic images from war zones has also been demonstrated in Media Psychology in 2014:
‘Results showed that the report with mutilations caused by bacterial infection elicited more fear than the report with mutilations caused by land mine explosions. This effect was mediated by the dimensions of suddenness, unpleasantness, personal relevance, and coping potential.’
To conclude, please think about the ethical basis for your current reporting on NHS Scotland. Surely, you do not want to be associated with this collateral damage?
Professor John Robertson