Speaking ill of the dead: is it ever justified?

It’s a tricky journalistic moral dilemma at the best of times.

But it comes into its own at this time of the year.

Just when is it appropriate to speak ill of the dead?

In Bath, where I am going back to my roots as a reporter this week, the killing of a homeless man has been top of the news agenda.

It’s important that we treat him as a fully-rounded human being, and I’ll be aiming to talk to a homelessness worker who knew him reasonably well tomorrow so he becomes more of a person and less of a one-dimensional victim.

We’ve got some reasonably warm – and sobering – words from another charity which worked with him.

But it’s also crystal clear that our man was no angel.

A paper in his home city put the fact that he was jailed during the 2011 riots for stealing some Krispy Kreme doughnuts in both the headline and intro of their story about his death.

We’ve deliberately put our mention of his 100-plus convictions right at the bottom of our latest story.

But we’ve still been taken to task on Twitter for “souring” his reputation.

It’s a classic case of damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

I well remember being accused of sanitising the reputation of a driver who died along with his cousin in a crash while he was over the limit because we enabled family members to pay glowing tribute to him.

In the end, we should always strive for a balance between what can be the harsh truth and the feelings of the bereaved.

If our coverage is fair, balanced and tinged with humanity, an element of warts-and-all can be part of painting the fullest possible picture of a real human being.

Blogging around the Christmas tree

Last Christmas Eve night, as my parents ate around me, I was writing about the floodwaters lapping around Bath city centre for the Chronicle’s website.

This year, I’ll be hopefully sipping whisky in a cottage in Dorset, having been lucky enough to get Christmas week off for the first time in 30 years.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always enjoyed working on Christmas Eve, particularly in the days when we all used to go to the pub at lunchtime before taking the afternoon off.

And there’s always that feeling of smug and sanctimonious superiority to be savoured as you crack on while the rest of the world checks out of the office, school or factory.

But I won’t miss Boxing Days in the office, early starts on New Year’s Day, and the joys of finding a splash for December 28.

It can be a stressful time to be a news editor.

But it usually turns out all right.

Many years ago, in the era of God being a boy and pagers being the very latest technology, and long before websites were even a glimmer in someone’s i-Pad, I was away from our patch on Christmas Day.

As I drove back in within range on Boxing Day, my pager began bleeping.

“Church hit by lightning during Christmas Day service. Story done and all under control,” was the message from the duty reporter.

To everyone working on newspapers and websites over the next few days, may your Christmas be entirely under control.

Planning pipers and partridges: why it isn’t just for Christmas

‘I’ve got a bagpiper bloke on the phone who says someone from here’s just rung him’ was my shout-out to the newsroom I was in yesterday.

The musician whose call I had intercepted turned out to be part of an elaborately planned initiative to create that paper’s own regional 12 days of Christmas.

The news editor was largely spending the day planning the paper’s Christmas and New Year coverage, plotting potential splashes and features to tide him over the fallow festive period.

It all seemed to be going fairly well, particularly the 12 days line-up, which was virtually complete.

When I was news editor of a daily paper, I used to take a reporter off the diary from mid-November to work exclusively on Christmas and New Year content.

I charted splashes, p3 specials, spreads and analysis over a fortnight, leaving me confident that we could fill papers with reasonably decent fare even when absolutely nothing was happening.

The irony was that we were probably serving up some of the strongest human interest stories of the year at a time when sales were at their lowest.

But it’s often occurred to me that we ought to keep that advance planning process going throughout the year.

Then it was all about print.

Now better planning could ensure we’ve always got new web content, that evergreen lists and guides are up to date, and help us set our own local agenda.

We’ve also now got better access to national news diaries through sites such as Foresight, and better software to organise our planning.

Yes, it takes time to begin with.

But keeping the Christmas spirit of advance planning alive into the New Year could save a lot of heartache and hassle as well.

Why Alan Little will be a big loss

When it comes to TV news, it’s pictures, pictures, pictures.

For a story to work, there must be decent, engaging images.

That’s always been the received wisdom, and of course it’s true.

But now and again, the sheer power of words and good writing exerts itself.

Often that time is when a story is in the hands of BBC journalist Alan Little.

Today the BBC announced that he would be leaving the corporation at the end of the year.

I will miss him, and I suspect I won’t be alone.

Alan Little with Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev Picture: BBC

Alan Little with Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev
Picture: BBC

These days Alan Little isn’t usually the first person at the scene of a story.

But, as the Beeb’s special correspondent, he often has the last word, the authoritative word, and the influential word on all manner of issues.

His choice of phrase, his sense of pace and his ability to strike the right note in difficult circumstances put him head and shoulders above the rest.

It was always a joy to hear his byline announced, and it is clear both from the heartfelt tributes now being paid and his presence on the BBC’s College of Journalism website how much he is valued by his employers.

He was walking, talking proof of the power of words, of the role of good writing in moving people, changing perceptions and telling simple truths.

He has set a standard to which all journalists should aspire.

The painful grain of truth in a grossly unfair description of journalism

They’re words that have haunted me for the last few days.

They paint a stark picture of the way journalism works, one that is at once grossly unfair but which also contains a grain of painful truth.

They come from the American news site Vox’s education reporter Libby Nelson.

“If a journalist were completely honest with a source about what it means to be interviewed for this sort of story, it would go something like this: you are going to tell me about the worst day of your life, because you think there is value in sharing that story with the rest of the world. You need to trust me, but you need to know I am not your friend. I will seem as sympathetic as I can be, but I will also note the exact moment you start crying so I can write about it. I will ask questions that might make you uncomfortable. I will call other people and tell them what you’re saying about them. I will open you up to the judgment of the entire world. And then I will walk away. And if you aren’t ready to deal with that, you shouldn’t talk to me.”

She was writing here about the way another news site, Rolling Stone, handled a story about a campus rape victim, for which it has since apologised.

It was a fairly unusual story, and Libby is talking about a fairly precise set of circumstances.

But her words are also a reminder of the responsibility we carry when we write about people’s emotional highs and lows, their good days and bad days, their controversial opinions and their heartfelt complaints.

There are times when – flying in the face of all traditional journalistic instincts – I have found myself talking people out of wanting us to highlight their story. School bullying is an example that springs readily to mind of a problem that is highly unlikely to be made better by media coverage.

I hope we get it right most of the time.

There are few more satisfying experiences in journalism than being thanked by a bereaved family for your coverage of the worst days in their collective lives.

And often a reader’s reward for baring his or her soul in print or online – and opening themselves to criticism and account – is that a painful issue is solved, or a wrong is righted.

But – particularly in age when the imperative to get stories written and online is so great – there are still times when we need to pause for thought.

And ask ourselves this question: If it was me in the position of my story subject, would I be happy?

Long arm of the law takes one step forward – and another one back

If policemen really do have big feet, we’ve seen one giant size 12 step forward and another one back this week.

One of my proudest achievements as a news editor was a name and shame campaign we ran at The Bath Chronicle more than a decade ago, where we went out of our way to cover every single drink-drive court case in the run-up to Christmas.

I’ve always felt that drink-driving was a particularly abhorrent offence, turning a car into a weapon at the hands of a motorist who at the very least is guilty of criminal complacency.

We took a fair bit of stick – particularly when we put a very popular vet on the front page – but the figures suggested our campaign had been a real deterrent.

Last Christmas, we tried to persuade Avon and Somerset police to follow the example of some other forces by releasing the names and addresses of everyone testing positive for drink-driving over the festive period.

They weren’t ready to do it then, or during their summer drink-driving initiative this year.

But now, as the Chronicle reports, the force has finally got its ducks – and its guts – in a row.

I was hugely pleased to see an email from the police confirming the temporary policy.

That delight at brave new police thinking didn’t last too long.

Today, Hold the Front Page reports the concern of The Harborough Mail at Leicestershire Constabulary’s decision to wait 11 days before releasing details of four linked sex attacks in its area.

The explanation from the police was as predictable as it is disappointing.

It wanted to “exhaust all other avenues” before turning to the media with an appeal for information and witnesses.

If I had a pound for every time I’d complained to a police press officer about the lateness of such an appeal, about the insulting, illogical lack of imagination of using the media as a last resort, I’d have been able to buy several Leveson-breaching dinners for constabulary contacts.

And if that same payment had been forthcoming every time a press office had sighed sympathetically and blamed the officer in the case, I’d have been able to afford the dessert course as well.

Leaving aside the police’s duty to warn the public about such incidents, what part of delaying information release until memories have faded and the potential story has grown whiskers is supposed to help solve a case?

I understand that there may be times when police don’t want to alert suspects that they’re on the case, and that there are all manner of logistical issues that can get in the way of obtaining CCTV footage.

But police officers need to be trained to regard the media as one of the first places they turn to for help, rather than one of the last.

How to battle the keyboard warriors

They’ve become known as the keyboard warriors.

They stay the right side of trolling, but they’re adept at getting on the wrong side of journalists.

There are few things guaranteed to get under the skin of journalists more than the casual, kneejerk criticism of an online reader.

Sometimes the comments can be all the more painful and wounding because there is a grain of truth in them.

Perhaps the criticism may reflect our own concerns over resourcing, copytasting or editorial priorities.

At other times, the critic may be utterly and completely unfair, out of order and downright offensive.

Whatever the situation, the indignation can burn.

There are two clear schools of thought on general online criticism – as opposed to the very specific and polite pointing-out of inaccuracies that can easily be acknowledged and corrected.

There are some journalists who firmly believe that engaging with critics is a waste of time which only serves to encourage the flow of abuse, giving those keyboard warriors something to bite (or bash) on.

It’s an understandable stance, and one undoubtedly based on bitter experience.

But my preference has always been to try to find ways of engaging with people who think we’ve got it wrong.

I’ve scored a few victories in changing hearts and minds over the years over issues from our coverage of a drink-drive death inquest to the way we covered major transport controversies.

You can’t please all the people, and there will be some with closed minds who are never going to listen.

But proving there’s a real – and thinking – human being behind the sometimes anonymous web content is always a worthwhile exercise.

These are my tips for online engagement:

  • Admit mistakes and put them right
  • Stress you are all human beings, trying to do the best you can
  • Keep your powder dry – don’t bite every time
  • Thank people genuinely for their views
  • Outline the resourcing realities of life
  • Explain decisions on coverage and angles
  • Count to ten before hitting send

My friends at the Western Gazette in Yeovil rightly thought it best to hit back at criticism of their decision to use a picture of an overturned car on their website.

It’s the sort of crash that local media organisations have been covering responsibly and sensitively for decades, but it pushed the wrong buttons for someone.

fbk w gaz

Often, a basic misunderstanding of the way legal systems work can get those keyboards pounding.

So it can be our duty to point out our rights and responsibilities – and our ethical touchstones – to generations left cold by their citizenship and civics lessons.

There hasn’t been any fresh criticism of the Western Gazette on its Facebook page, and the newsdesk comment has attracted more likes than the attack which prompted it.

In the war of the keyboards, I think we can count that as a bit of a victory.