OPINION: The message and the media

Lisa Harker, chair of the Daycare Trust

The opaqueness of this sector's career structure has always struck me as a good thing. You don't need special qualifications to enter; people from a wide range of backgrounds are welcome - talent, initiative and bags of energy are all that's needed if you want to get on.

But if campaign organisations were now to demand certain criteria, then knowledge of how the media works would be considered a priority. The media has become such a powerful influence on policy debates that understanding how it functions is as important as appreciating how the British political system works.

Yet it is all too easy to get caught up in the excitement of making news.

Last week's King's Fund document on the way the media reports (or misreports) stories was a salutary reminder. It told us what we already know - that the media's reporting of health scare stories are often out of all proportion to levels of actual risk. As the report put it, if you were to die from measles, you are over 34,000 times more likely to get your disease mentioned on the news than if your death was caused by smoking.

But sensational media stories are the grit of good campaigns. In the voluntary sector it is often our job to persuade journalists that the problems we expose are newsworthy. But there is a fine line between campaigning and irresponsible exaggeration. We are sometimes in danger of being complicit in drawing disproportionate attention to problems because it serves our campaigning ends.

Take the issue of stranger danger. There is every need to ensure that society does not lose sight of the horrors that might befall children, nor shrink from taking action to protect them. But it is irresponsible to overplay the risk or imply that children today face a greater threat from strangers. Yes, children need protection, but only as much as they have ever done.

There was some irony in the timing of the King's Fund report. This highly respected, dispassionate source of information on health issues has just appointed a new chief executive - you've guessed it, a journalist. Perhaps Niall Dickson will be able to bring some wisdom to the debate. After all, he is better placed than most to see it from both sides.

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