The vital public interest of filming inside intensive care

The human cost of the coronavirus outbreak was graphically illustrated by reports on both BBC and ITV News last night.

BBC medical correspondent Fergus Walsh and ITV health correspondent Emily Morgan both reported from inside intensive care units in hospitals treating some of the sickest coronavirus patients.

On the day the Prime Minister was also transferred to intensive care, they made uncomfortable and compelling viewing.

Scrolling through Twitter as I watched the BBC 10 o’clock bulletin, I spotted this tweet by one of my post-graduate students, Hannah Woodward.

She had summed up an issue a lot of social media users had expressed; that the reporters were using vital resources that should have been reserved for patients.

In fact, as Fergus Walsh made clear, his team had donated personal protective equipment to the hospital. He also posted an explanation on Twitter.

But that reaction is something that journalists often face when reporting.

It is most often thought about as an ethical dilemma when reporting from warzones or on natural disasters.

If a journalist is taking up a place on a rescue helicopter sent to bring people out of danger, that means there will be one person left behind who can’t be rescued and may die as a result.

It is not a theoretical dilemma as this report by ITV’s John Irvine demonstrates.

Why then do journalists continue to report in this way?

The fact is that the journalist’s duty is not to rescue an individual but to tell the public about the reasons why they need to be rescued.

Done well, the journalist’s reporting will help the public understand the impact of the crisis and put pressure on governments to resolve it. It will shine a light on the human cost of the crisis and the failures of policy that led to it.

It is a utilitarian position, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Perhaps the classic example is from the 1980s when Michael Buerk’s reporting on the Ethiopian famine led to Live Aid.

Reporters will have thought long and hard about filming inside an ICU. The people being treated there may be facing their final hours and filming is intrusive.

But it seems to me that it is vital that the public sees and understands how the sickest patients are being treated.

Watching those few minutes of television will have far more impact on viewers’ comprehension of the pressures the health service is under than any number of Downing Street news conferences.

And, maybe, will help ensure that, when this is all over, the NHS is ready for the next pandemic.

Author: Matt Walsh

Journalist

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