03 September 2010

Baby Torque

Perceptions can sometimes be influenced by how information is presented.

Prices are an easy example.  Saying that something is $9.99 somehow gets interpreted by people as being closer to nine dollars than to $10.  Sure we understand the concept, but for some reason, people tend to round numbers down sometimes.

Some bullshit artists passing themselves off as media trainers have been known to suggest using kilometres than miles for measurement if you want things to appear farther away.  Like say a potential environmental hazard from a sensitive spot.

In a news conference on Thursday, the province’s largest health authority passed out some information on how many pregnant women and how many newborns wound up being sent to hospitals on the mainland because of an overload in the neonatal intensive care unit at Eastern Health.

The Telegram reported on the newser.  It’s a straight-up account of the information presented by Eastern Health. In one part of the report, there is some information about statistics on what they seem to call “diverts”:
…from June 2008 to July 2010 the health authority transferred 15 mothers and nine babies out of the province…
Over a two year period, Eastern sent a total of 15 women and nine infants to other hospitals. The CBC online version of the story gives the same information at the end of the piece.  They just broke it down into two periods of 12 months each.

But now we get to the curious bit.  That’s where we find out how many infants and pregnant women are now outside the province since July 2010.

Here’s the way the Telegram put it:
From July 31 to Sept. 1, 12 mothers and three babies have been transferred to health care facilities in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Ontario and Quebec.
CBC gave the information by talking about what happened “since July 31.”

So here’s the thing:  how many months are covered by that period in Eastern sent 12 pregnant women for care at hospitals outside the province?

Quick scan and you might say three.

Then it might dawn on you that there is something in between July 31 and September 1.

It’s called the month of August.

In a single month, Eastern shipped almost as many women and babies out of the province for care as in the
two years prior.

The specific time frame the Telegram used is actually taken, almost word for word, from the Eastern Health news release:
Since implementing divert on July 31, up to September 1, Eastern Health has transferred 12 moms and 3 babies to facilities outside of the province.
The release itself is a curious mixture of sterile jargon on the one hand – calling the practice “being on divert” – and the rather folksy and familiar practice of calling the pregnant women involved “moms” on the other.  It also follows a fairly standard provincial government formula of not putting substantive information in the first few paragraphs.  News releases, you may recall, should follow the convention of putting the big idea right there at the beginning, usually in the first sentence.

Rather, the most important information in this bit of writing  - according to Eastern Health  - is that Eastern provided an update. That’s not only the first sentence, it’s also the headline.  Double whammy to reinforce their main point.

The second sentence has some potentially relevant detail, namely why they are shipping people out of the province.

Then there’s a quote from Vickie Kaminski.  But it isn’t until you get to the third paragraph that you start to get any sense of exactly how significant this whole issue is.

Then there is more background, detail and filler until you get to the end of the things more than two pages later.  That’s a gigantic news release by any standards.  Government and its agencies apparently have no shortage of words when they need them.

In thinking about this news release and news conference you might also be interested in thinking about what the key idea was that Eastern wanted to convey.  What was it about this whole situation that Vickie and her team wanted you to remember?

According to the news release, it was that they gave an update.  That’s the main idea because that’s the first sentence.

According to the Telegram, the big news was this:
The president and CEO of Eastern Health says it will likely be December before pressure eases up on the Janeway Children’s Hospital neonatal intensive-care unit (NICU).
CBC put it this way:
Newfoundland and Labrador's largest health authority is reassuring expectant mothers that everything is being done to protect the health of their babies despite a shortage of equipment and staff that is forcing pregnant women and newborns out of the province for care.
NTV – and the biggest audience in the province – led with a statement in the introduction that the health authority will cover costs.

For good measure, here’s the first sentence of VOCM’s story:
Eastern Health is working to ensure both nurses and mothers are well in light of a situation at the Janeway's Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.
One newser.

Five completely different news ledes.

And the one from the regional health authority itself is – just guessing here – not the takeaway Eastern Health itself had in mind. The Telly one is most likely the one they’d least like to see and NTV’s account – while accurate – focuses on a huge negative aspect of the story rather than carry the message that the authority is concerned primarily with its patients' health and well-being.

Interestingly enough, the CBC online version begins with what is most like Kaminski’s key idea. VOCM got it as well, in a much pithier way.

They found it in the last two sentences of the second paragraph, in the quote from Vicki Kaminski.  But even then it wasn’t the first bit of Kaminski’s quote:
I want to assure all expectant mothers that their safety and the safety of their babies are of utmost concern for us. We are closely monitoring the situation and will arrange a transfer if required, to ensure that the appropriate level of care is provided to mothers and their babies.”
The release should have started with the assurance because Care is Job 1.

Then they should have described the situation that led to the decision to “divert”:
  • Almost as many high risk pregnancies and sick newborns in a single month as they had in two whole years before coupled with
  • Staff issues
And then there should have been the list of actions taken;
  • full cost reimbursement
  • recruiting and training
  • administrative steps to increase trained staff etc
And then an update on the ones from August.  This shows, among other things, the extent to which the situation is being managed and that people are being cared for appropriately.

Anything more than a page and a half was too much because busy reporters don’t have time to dissect two and bit pages of stuff.

Perception is affected by how information is presented.

- srbp -