2.1 The Science Media Centre: mental health, research and the media
The UK's(SMC), an independent press office that emerged from the House of Lords’ Science and Technology Select Committee in 2002 with the aim of increasing public awareness and trust in science, serves a key role working with journalists and experts within the scientific community. The SMC strives 'to provide, for the benefit of the public and policymakers, accurate and evidence-based information about science and engineering through the media, particularly on controversial and headline news stories when most confusion and misinformation occurs'. Originally based in the Royal Institution of Great Britain, the SMC is now housed in the Wellcome Collection. It operates on the core belief that scientists 'can have a huge impact on the way the media cover scientific issues, by engaging more quickly and more effectively with the stories that are influencing public debate and attitudes to science'. This function has been demonstrated countless times over the years across the broad spectrum of science in the news.
With the increase in reporting of mental health research in the media, and the appointment of a new Head of Mental Health at the time, the SMC drafted a consultation report (see Box 1) and put forward a set of recommendations in 2010 (see Bithell, 2010 and 2013) - issues that are still largely relevant today.
Box 1 The Science Media Centre: Mental Health, Research and the Media
Key issues raised in the SMC Consultation Report (Bithell, 2010)
Media coverage around mental health problems tends to be negative in tone, largely due to the types of media stories covered (with many focusing on crime or violent incidents).
Mental health and neuroscience research does not generate sufficient media coverage (with coverage of mental health research in areas other than Alzheimer’s disease largely under-reported).
Publicising research offers an opportunity to present a better-informed narrative about mental health in the media.
The strategic outlook is favourable − there is enthusiasm and excitement about the future of mental health research.
Coverage around mental health research will help raise awareness of basic facts about mental ill health.
Mental health research, and broader issues related to mental health can be difficult to communicate to the media, mainly due to the complexity of the area, diversity of opinion and the fact that there are few ‘simple’ messages.
There can be problems with the way that psychiatry (as a field of medicine) is perceived by those outside the field; with concerns around outdated stereotypical views.
Psychiatry and clinical psychology are disciplines that differ in their approaches and views towards mental ill health − 'many psychiatrists felt that a psychological or social approach (rather than a medical approach) tended to be given undue publicity, whereas psychologists often felt that a medical approach was the dominant view given in the media'.
There are not enough mental health research spokespeople in the media.
It can be difficult to respond in a timely way to breaking news stories in the area of mental health with little warning and tight deadlines; news stories often focus on controversial areas and experts quoted may not necessarily be the best qualified to comment.
To cover mental health research, journalists also need access to case studies of people who have experience of mental health problems (i.e. service-users available for media interviews).