Originally published October 2014
Media interest in legal matters or medical regulatory authority (College) issues is not new; however, the convergence of traditional media and social media has amplified the reach and impact of news stories featuring physicians, their practice, or their medico-legal difficulties. Physicians have to reconcile with the fact that their role is a public one, and along with that comes public accountability and scrutiny. Understanding what makes news, its life cycle, and dissemination channels will assist physicians in managing news interest.
While physicians may feel vulnerable when facing journalists or frustrated when confronted with negative news coverage, strategies are available to mitigate the potential negative impact. Physicians will want to be aware and apply these, irrespective if the news is shared through social media, or through more conventional media (print or broadcast).
What makes news?
There are general guideposts that journalists and editors use to determine what is newsworthy. These generally include timing, significance, proximity, prominence, and human interest.1 In addition, the regional context, the type of print or broadcast media, and what else is occurring in the news cycle will also influence what makes news, and the prominence that will be attached to it (front page, top of hour newscast, etc.).
Physicians can expect that at some point in their career, they will be the direct or indirect focus of a news story. This can be positive, such as when celebrating a career milestone, a research or treatment discovery, or supporting a patient success story. It can also be difficult, even harmful to a physician's reputation when the circumstances involve a legal action, disciplinary hearing, or a patient harm incident.
How to manage the news interest
When the interest is welcomed, physicians can leverage the media to share helpful information to a broad segment of the public, while also contributing to the positive image and reputation of the profession, and the institution in which they practise. Conversely, when the news interest is expected to be negative or harmful to a physician's reputation, the following should be considered:
Remain professional when asked for an interview, whether accepting or declining to be interviewed.
Refrain from provocative language or behaviour, even when the circumstances are undeniably challenging.
When declining to participate in an interview, keep the lines of communication open for future opportunities, when appropriate.
If the media interest is about the care provided to a specific patient, obtain advance consent from the patient, substitute decision-maker, or estate.
If the information relates to care provided at a hospital or facility, confirm whether you have the necessary permission to speak on behalf of the hospital or facility.
Consider providing factual information, either through a written or verbal statement.
Consider asking a third-party (e.g. chief of department) to speak in support of your performance, if appropriate.
Seek the support of your friends, family, and colleagues, recognizing that those that matter most also know you best.
What are your obligations to the news media?
While their role is often a public one, physicians do not have an obligation to grant media interviews, or to provide a photograph, or other requested information. However, when faced with media interest, physicians will want to consider what is in their best interest, and in the best interest of the patient, given the circumstances. Journalists generally seek to present a balanced story, in which varying perspectives are captured. Physicians should consider if they are well positioned, or not, to present another perspective or the other side of the story. Not granting an interview doesn't always make the news interest disappear.
If physicians decide not to speak with the media or grant an interview, sometimes a timely, brief response may satisfy reporters' needs. The following responses may be helpful:
I have received your voicemail or emails, but I will not be a position to grant you an interview.
I understand your interest in this story, but I will not be available for an interview.
I cannot address the specific issues raised by a patient, on the basis of my obligation to keep their information confidential.
As the matter is before the court (or College), it would not be appropriate for me to comment.
The facts are widely known and reported, and there isn't anything further that I wish to add.
I have prepared a statement, which will address the questions you've raised.
When the news coverage is negative, can anything be done?
Physicians may find themselves or the institution where they practise embroiled in a controversy that captures local or national news headlines. Some media strategists will counsel to take a proactive approach when "bad" news is expected, while others counsel a more reactive approach. The significance of the issue and the individual central to the news story will dictate the prominence and reach, and concomitantly the mitigation measures that can be considered.
If the media is focused on an individual doctor, it is more important than ever to demonstrate professionalism, despite the added pressure faced. How physicians interact with others, including journalists, can counter the image being portrayed, or confirm it. Facing the issue first-hand may be very difficult, but may be an approach worth considering. If physicians engage with the media, they should be prepared for difficult questions. Having a formal or informal statement, or key messages, prepared beforehand is useful in such cases.
Physicians may also find themselves interwoven in a news story that involves their patients. While patients may disclose personal health information, physicians must still fulfill their obligations to privacy and confidentiality. Faced with media questions regarding the health conditions of patients, physicians must first obtain consent before information can be disclosed.
If physicians feel the news coverage warrants the attention of the press council in their area, which upholds journalistic and ethical standards on behalf of the public and the press, a formal complaint can be initiated. Most news organizations participate in a press council, which adjudicates complaints from the public. The following provinces or regions have a press council where concerns can be raised — Ontario, Québec, Alberta, Manitoba, British Columbia, and Atlantic Canada.
In very serious circumstances, legal redress may be another avenue. This would entail pursuing defamation and libel.
Consider these additional tips when faced with negative news:
The news cycle is 24/7 and media interest can shift quickly to another story. Take comfort in knowing that your story will become "old news" and interest will move on.
Not saying anything doesn't always make the news story disappear. Whether you participate in an interview or not, if the story is deemed newsworthy, it will likely be published in traditional or social media.
If you're asked for an interview, asking questions of the reporter is most appropriate (who else is being interviewed, what is the timeline, etc.)
Don't rush into an interview, thinking it's better to get it over and done with. Take time to consider what you will say and how. Negotiate the timelines with the reporter.
Having third-party support is worth considering, when countering a negative story. When appropriate, invite your supporters to speak out to provide a more balanced perspective to the story.
Follow up with the reporter if the facts are wrong. Don't let errors stay uncorrected, as another reporter may rely on the erroneous facts to build the next story.
Members who require advice when faced with a media request can contact the CMPA.
Media.College.com, "What makes news?" Accessed on May 21, 2014 from: http://www.mediacollege.com/journalism/news/newsworthy.html