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Dr Carol Cooper, resident doctor for Five News and The Sun, gives the lowdown on working as a doctor in the media.
Q: You’re The Sun’s doctor. What does this involve in practice?
A: My main function is to respond to whatever’s topical in the news, either by giving an on-the-spot quote to a Sun journalist, or writing a few hundred words by way of commentary on a news story. Quite often this is celebrity-driven, perhaps talking about Gavin Henson’s latest groin injury. Or it might be commenting on the £70,000 sculpture that’s in front of University College Hospital, and suggesting exactly what that £70,000 might have bought in terms of medical care.
Then again, it might be distilling the essence of a so-called medical breakthrough and explaining in simple terms what it could mean for readers, and whether it’s an important advance. While there’s always some serious content, you could best describe it as ‘infotainment’. For instance, we wouldn’t have been talking about TB if Amy Winehouse hadn’t been tested for it.
In a way, it’s like working in A&E – without the germs. You never know what’s going to happen next, and you don’t have much time to respond – maybe an hour for 300 words on the dangers of drinking petrol or a quick response about a four-month-old baby who needs a heart-lung transplant. It could be almost any topic, but here’s where my varied clinical career really helps. Another challenge is the word count. I had only 100 words to explain the essentials about TB. There’s absolutely no room for waffle.
Q: You also contribute to The Lancet. How different is this from working for The Sun?
A: In some ways, very different. The Sun is a busy daily newspaper, so the need is much more immediate and the copy has to be produced far more quickly. With The Lancet, there’s no need to react as quickly, because issues are planned well in advance. You also have a lot more words to play with. I tend to do book reviews and occasional short pieces for The Lancet.
However, there are more similarities than you might think. For both types of reader you’re still writing as a professional. And you give the facts. You may need to present this in a more sophisticated way for The Lancet, but readers still need honest facts. And both publications require a certain fluency with words. Until they try it, some people think it’s easy to write for a tabloid, but it demands just as much skill as any other form of journalism, maybe more. A lot of medical stories in The Sun start off in The Lancet or BMJ. I get the BMJ and The Lancet press releases ahead of time, which means The Sun is usually publishing the story on the same day as the medical journals.
Q: And what do you find yourself doing as resident doctor at Five News?
A: I usually appear on the lunchtime news slot, as and when there’s a medical news item. Being a lunchtime, there’s also more of a magazine feel. For instance, there was recently a mother who adopted a baby and discovered it had fetal alcohol syndrome. This was an opportunity to highlight the problem and to talk about the sometimes conflicting advice given to pregnant mums. On one hand, many medics believe it is okay to drink a little bit during pregnancy, whereas NICE has come out and said you shouldn’t drink at all. It is about putting this in context for the man (or more likely, woman) on the proverbial Clapham omnibus.
These are usually live studio interviews, very rarely recorded – so you’ve just a few minutes to give the essentials. It’s soundbite science, but it’s valuable because, with luck, the facts come across in a memorable way.
Q: Is being a media doctor similar to or very different from being a medical journalist?
A: Medical journalists don’t have to be doctors; in fact, most aren’t. The main difference is that media doctors are often talking or writing much more from their experience as a doctor, rather than researching the material for their pieces. Having said that, it’s a good idea for a medic to check a few facts before going on air. If I waffled or made it up, someone would be bound to point it out.
Q: What first attracted you to working in the media?
A: It was a bit of an accident, but it suits me perfectly and I wouldn’t want to do anything else. Actually, my mother’s a writer, and I’ve always written. I’d written quite a few articles, had a column in Punch and had written stuff for other doctors in the medical press freebies. Then I wrote a book on staying healthy at work and ended up being interviewed about it on radio and TV. My second TV interview ever was on Newsnight. If you can handle that, you can probably handle most things. Then I wrote another book. More interviews followed and I did a column for the Financial Times for a while. I think I’ve been lucky because, one day nine years ago, someone rang me up and asked if I wanted to contribute to The Sun. They say the harder you work, the luckier you get. Well, that’s true, but there’s definitely been some good luck as well as hard graft.
Q: What possible options are there for doctors to work in the media?
A: There are lots of possible options – print, broadcast or web-based. Within each of these you can aim at professional or lay audiences, or write for industry. For instance, some people make a living writing background documents on various clinical conditions for people who work in the drug industry or in PR.
Q: Are there any set career paths, in the way there is in medicine, or is it mainly a question of ad hoc freelance work?
A: There isn’t a career structure as such, although doing Q&A columns is a common way in for doctors who want to write and don’t have much previous media experience. There are some opportunities to work on the staff, with a contract, but most opportunities are for part-time, freelance work, or you can go from one kind of consulting role to the next.
Q: So how do you get started and how competitive a world is this?
A: It is very competitive. For a start, a lot of doctors write. In some ways, medics are natural communicators, or should be. And doctors are encouraged to write. If you don’t publish, you don’t get far up the ladder. Having said that, the style you’d adopt for the New England Journal of Medicine probably wouldn’t get you very far in the popular press. However, even if you’re very competitive as an individual, you still have to be a completely professional medic. If you’re not, you’ll lose credibility and your standing with colleagues, and may even fall foul of the GMC.
Q: You’ve combined your work in the media with a continuing medical career – as a sessional GP and teaching at Imperial College Medical School. How do you find these three strands fit together?
A: They fit together very well. I was working in the media when I was a GP partner, but found media work fitted in better with my family commitments. My teaching at Imperial draws on my communication and consultation skills. I had always been used to teaching when I worked full-time as a clinician but that’s much more difficult as a sessional GP, so working at Imperial gives me an opportunity to maintain my teaching. And it’s great fun.
Q: Why should doctors consider working in the media?
A: The flexibility is very good and this type of work tends to complement your medical knowledge. You’re in charge of your own time (depending on who you work for and what their deadlines are). You can also reach a wider audience than your immediate patients – over three million readers a day in the case of The Sun, versus 20 patients or so in the average morning surgery.
Media work is highly sought after, and I find it very rewarding, but it isn’t for everyone. Some people may have a rather rosy view that you get ludicrously well paid for no more than the occasional words into a Dictaphone or a quick off-the-cuff interview. In reality, it is hard work.
Q: What are the practicalities? For instance, how does pay compare, how regular is work likely to be, and what are the things you probably don’t realise about working in the media until you’ve actually worked in it?
A: You can have quite fallow periods, so it is a good idea to organise some back-up work. Some outlets pay less than others. For instance, you could be paid less than £200 for 1,000 words with some magazines, and a lot of local radio work is unpaid. BBC local radio never pays. Some regular outlets can go belly up, particularly in the current economic climate. You wonder why the regular cheque hasn’t arrived, and next thing you know they have gone to the wall. Things can change very quickly. There’s also a lot more bother when it comes to tax returns and, if you’re a high earner, there are VAT implications too.
Q: What would you say are the main pros and cons of working in the media?
A: On the downside, you need a lot of discipline and a fair amount of luck. You also need not to be too thin-skinned. It is a very insecure existence. And the paperwork, particularly for tax purposes, takes time.
On the plus side, this type of work can complement your medical skills, provides flexibility and can help with professional development. You’re usually in charge of your own time and you can work full- or part-time. It fits in well with parenting, as you can do some media work from home. And there’s the opportunity to communicate with so many people.
Dr Carol Cooper has combined a medical career (currently as a sessional GP and teaching at Imperial College Medical School) with a career as a media doctor. She has also written many books on parenting and child health.