Published: 12/09/2002, Volume II2, No. 5822 Page 16 17

Last week, the Mental Health Alliance announced that a mid-October lobby of Parliament would replace its planned September national march.

What was the reason for its change of plans? The tragic events in Soham had created an 'atmosphere of misunderstanding of people with mental health problems'and alliance members had decided it could not guarantee the health and safety of participants.

'Some [members] felt that we should take the risk and face down any public or media opposition based on misleading stereotypes about mental distress and misunderstandings of the government's plans, 'explained alliance chair Paul Farmer.'...but the majority...felt that the risks to participants of going ahead were simply too high.'

The problem of negative and misleading media health coverage was also picked up by an Audit Commission report on staffing problems facing the public sector.The study highlighted the fact that staff felt that their media-generated public image would discourage potential recruits. In order to discover how true this perception was, a broad sector of the national press was analysed.

Public sector press coverage was reviewed to find out what stories were about, how many there were and the way in which they were reported.

There was no shortage of material; in the six-week survey period the average person could have seen 21 articles on health.

But, said the report, 'the picture of public sector work presented to the reading public is unremittingly bleak'.Stories of all types were reported negatively, although some were more critical than others.

To redress the balance, the Department of Health is pumping millions into creating new communication posts.Undoubtedly a major objective is to shift the tone of media coverage in the hope that a positive public image and more success stories will help boost the morale of employees and restore the confidence of patients.

They might also lay to rest some of the more damaging and misleading stereotypes so beloved by the media.

There is an old newsroom saying that there is no such thing as good news, but in its pursuit of more bad news the mainstream media should try to remember the equally old journalistic principles of objectivity and balance.