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Resource: Dealing With The Media

A patient safety advocate shares lessons she’s learned about journalism with others who have suffered medical harm.

As part of our patient harm reporting, we’re highlighting reader voices. This post originally appeared in ProPublica’s Patient Harm Facebook Group.

Over my 12 years as a patient safety advocate with Mothers Against Medical Error, one fact has repeatedly been brought home to me: we have no more important ally than the media. The media loves a good story, and patient safety includes all the elements of a great story: human drama, innocent victims, startling facts, and what is surely the worthiest of causes – saving lives and holding professionals to the high standards we all believe they should have.
Why, then, do so many patients who have suffered medical harm have a hard time getting the ear of the press? There are many reasons, some involving the story, some the patient, and some the news outlet or reporter the patient is trying to interest. Here are a few pointers on approaching the press and getting them to listen to your story.

1) Find the right reporter.  Journalists are not all the same! Some shy away from controversy, while others love to take on the establishment;  some do in-depth investigative pieces while others turn out stories on a daily basis. Journalists also specialize.  Reporters who might cover stories of medical harm include health care, business, educational, or legal reporters.  So do your homework: Go online or to the library and look up their previous work to find out which reporters are a good match for your story.
2) Keep it local.  Most traditional news outlets focus on local news.  Even if a news outlet is not located in your community, your story may include some aspect that is relevant to them, so always try to think of the local angle.  Did you live in that community in the past?  Does your story echo one that occurred there?
3) Daily newspapers are not the only game in town.  Some towns have weekly newspapers as well as daily, and there are often local bloggers and columnists who take a deep interest in anything that happens in their community.  Television stations, in particular, have to fill several news shows a day and are always on the lookout for local stories.
4) Make it timely.  Most news outlets run on a fairly short cycle.  For them, “news” is what is happening right now.  If your medical incident happened several years ago, try looking for a more recent news topic to tie your story to.  Such topics might include a legal case or settlement (including your own), a recent journal article, or a health care policy decision.
5) Keep it brief.  Reporters are busy and don’t have time to wade through large amounts of material. If you want to get their attention, be succinct.  You can always add details later if the reporter follows up.
6) Keep it objective.  Remember that this is about news, not emotion.  Keep your presentation restrained and dignified; above all, refrain from making accusations.  If your story has merit, it does not need embellishment.  Be prepared to provide documentation to back up what you are saying.
7) Connect to the big picture.  To a journalist, the main value of your story is the point it illustrates. Recognize what this point is and focus on it.  What policy or practice needs to be changed to prevent occurrences like yours from happening?  What is occurring on the state or national scene that helps put this into perspective?
8)  Make your own news.  The best way to draw attention to a cause is to be active in the community.  Follow and comment on legislation and local medical news.  Write op-eds and letters to the editor.  Sponsor events such as fundraisers or talks at the local library.  The human interest story that emerges from your activities will probably be the element that gets the most attention.
9) Tailor your approach to the circumstances.  For an event or an announcement, an emailed press release is an efficient way to get the word out to a lot of people.  (Look online for the proper format for press releases and to find email addresses for news outlets.) For more in-depth coverage, most reporters want an exclusive story.  If you are looking for someone to write a detailed story or an investigative piece, you should approach reporters one at a time, by email or telephone.
10) Be prepared for rejection.  Unfortunately, medical injury is common.  Even if it’s well-substantiated and presented as part of a larger picture, journalists may still consider it “not a story.”  It is important to realize that a reporter may not be able to follow up on your story for any number of reasons.  This is not a reflection on the significance of what happened to you and your family.  It simply means that you need to look elsewhere.
11) Take advantage of the magic of the Internet.  Patient activists don’t need the mainstream media to get their story noticed.  It is easy to create a blog or website or to write a guest blog on one of the many health care sites on the Internet.  Once you have an online presence, social media like Facebook and Twitter are a powerful way to attract more readers and draw attention to your cause.

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