The media and Grenfell Tower: the good, the bad and the ugly

Just over a week on from the Grenfell Tower horror, it’s clear there are goodies and baddies.

Top of the list of those who have emerged with reputations enhanced are, of course, London’s firefighters, and their impressive chief Dany Cotton.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn showed some deft touches with a timely visit that saw him comforting relatives and demanding action. The Queen appeared to make light of Theresa May’s security worries by visiting the area, and caught the mood of the nation with an unprecedented statement last week.

And the people of West London have shown jaw-dropping community spirit in filling in some of the huge gaps left by the authorities on the ground.

Which brings me to the groups who haven’t covered themselves in glory: the local council, whose chief executive last night resigned, Mrs May, the housing trust which runs the tower, the building inspection regime, a host of contractors, ministers stretching back many years, and a political culture that prized dogma and penny-pinching over safety.

So in which camp do we put the media?

Well, it has to be a bit of both, as this excellent Buzzfeed article on local people’s mixed feelings explains.

Journalists have been able to tell the full story of this utterly man-made disaster in a way that has woken this country from a complacent slumber: highlighting raw suffering, amazing bravery, incredible generosity and criminal negligence.

But there have also been spectacular errors of judgement.

We’ll have to let IPSO decide whether the Sun really did get one of its reporters to impersonate a relative , although the paper’s statement of denial has the ring of truth to me.

The regulator will also have to take a view on the 1,500 complaints it has received about a Mail Online story naming the man whose ‘faulty’ fridge is alleged to have started the fire.

Mail Online – not to be confused with any national newspaper with a similar name, by the way – has sought to defend itself by saying no one could reasonably draw the implication that it was blaming Britain’s worst fire for generations on the man.

There’s an answer to that, and it rhymes with ollocks. 

With no buy-in from the man – he told Mail Online he didn’t want to talk, there was absolutely no justification for naming him in these unprecedented circumstances.

There are many, many people who need to be named and shamed over Grenfell Tower. A taxi driver from Ethiopia isn’t one of them.

The backlash against the story may have been intensified by the way in which this tragedy has allowed thousands of people to see the media go about its work for days on end.

Journalists have been exposed to very public questioning and criticism of their methods and their work – and not just at Grenfell Tower, as the BBC’s religious affairs editor Martin Bashir found when covering the Finsbury Park mosque terror incident.

There has been no hiding place for journalists – and nor should there be.

Some of the Grenfell Tower coverage may have felt insensitive, but there is a far, far bigger question for our industry to address.

A very telling piece in Press Gazette suggests that not a single newspaper or local news site covered the extensive warnings by residents at the tower over fire safety.

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Never has the phrase read it and weep been more apt.

The theme is echoed in an equally sobering article by journalist Grant Feller, who once covered North Kensington.

As I said in a blog last week, this mind-boggling horror that leaves us running out of appropriate words highlights the overwhelming importance of political journalism.

It can be deeply unsexy, deeply time-consuming, and deeply analytics-unfriendly.

Even with that most crucial and increasingly rare commodity of time, it’s not easy to sift out the wolf-criers and the serial whingers, let alone to find engaging ways of making the important interesting.

But it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that if journalists in West London had been allowed to spend more time making contacts, more time poring over detailed council agendas, and more time simply listening to real people, we might – might – not be where we are today.

I’ve spent too much time today poring over another document, the impressively wide-ranging annual Reuters Institute report on the media.

It looks at trust in the media, at the willingness of people in different countries to pay for their news (only six per cent in the UK do), and at the growing power of social media.

Essentially, it asks: What is the media for?

I tweeted this last week.

Belatedly, our politics is beginning to prove its worth at – when put together with the election result – what feels like a major turning point for our attitudes to austerity, deregulation and privatisation.

Now it’s time for journalism to prove that it, too, can learn the lessons of Grenfell Tower.

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How to crowdsource ethically in times of tragedy

Another weekend – and another murder on the streets of Gloucestershire.

My friends at the Gloucestershire Live website have been kept incredibly busy by a weekend of grim crime.

One, I should assure the parents of our current and future students, that is not representative.  That lovely, peaceful lake on our campus is no mirage. This is a safe place to live.

But I digress.

Part of the coverage of any such tragedy is the identification of the victim, the painting a picture of someone who once had a full and vivid life.

My friends will be – gently – on the case.

I say gently partly because the press regulator Ipso has raised the bar when it comes to media identification of people who have just died, with a landmark ruling last year.

But also because last weekend, the Gloucestershire Live team were unfairly blamed for being too quick off the mark in approaching the friends and family of Camran Green after he was killed in Cheltenham.

In fact the approaches on Facebook had come from the regional news agency, SWNS.

Editor Jenny Eastwood made it clear – on Facebook, and in response to heavy criticism of her staff, that they had made no approaches to Camran’s family.

It’s worth saying that Gloucestershire Live did use the material which SWNS unearthed.

And I would have done the same.

What’s more, it would have been the best-read story on the site by a country mile.

It’s another illustration of my favourite – and most heavily used here – journalistic saying.

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People don’t tend to like seeing under the bonnet of journalism, don’t want to know what happens around the back of the scenery to ensure they get the stories they love to read.

Getting in touch with people who have witnessed or been touched by tragedy is one of the most difficult parts of journalism – ethically, emotionally and logistically.

Luckily, there is no shortage of advice.

This is is a great round-up from the last newsrewired conference while this has just been published by First Draft News.

They’re both very well worth a read, and provide some well-tested answers to the question I’ve posed in the headline.

The fact that crowdsourcing happens in public lifts that bonnet – and means the media have to be very careful. And thick-skinned.

I’ve seen some very witty replies to requests from Mail Online reporters for permission to use pictures.

And some people are just bluntly brilliant. When this was posted, The Sun came social media knocking.

 

And this was the reply.

no-to-sun

In the end, though, there’s a rule of thumb that I’ve always fallen back on when dealing with any kind of potentially intrusive coverage.

It’s a set of questions that I’ve been urging my students to keep in mind at all times.

How would I feel if this was happening to me? How would I want to be approached? How would I feel if my mum/sister/best friend received this Facebook message?

If you ask those questions honestly and with emotional intelligence, I don’t think you can go far wrong. 

Facing up to the Facebook changes

A great man once said that a week was a long time in politics.
I’m not here to talk about that now.
But you could equally well say that a week is a long time in evolving multimedia journalism.
Certainly it feels that way.
If I ever need a chuckle, I take myself off to the uni library to open a book or two about online journalism.
Stuff written just two or three years ago now reads like ancient Hebrew script.
It was around then (two or three years ago, not the time of ancient Hebrew scripts) that I sat in on a number of sessions about social media and its increasing role in persuading people to read our stories.
The watchword then was very much about being human: avoiding robotic and repetitive tease posts such as ‘what do you think?’
In the intervening couple of years, Facebook has changed its algorithms several times, as well as introducing Facebook Articles and Facebook Live.
In terms of getting people to the content on most news websites – certainly regional ones – it has been virtually the only show in town for a lot of material.
So, when the Facebook wind changes, content desks may have to change tack accordingly.
I was hugely encouraged a couple of months ago when Facebook announced it would be prioritising longer reads – ensuring more thoughtful pieces of writing appeared in people’s feeds.
This week, it’s revealed it will be emphasising friends’ and family posts in a move likely to reduce the amount of publishers’ content which is seen.
Already I have noticed a dramatic fall in visible posts from the regional and national news sites whose pages I like.
It’s a change that not everyone has seen as negative.

There is real concern that Facebook, Google and, increasingly, phone brands, are becoming the gatekeepers of so much news content.
Whatever your view, most people seem to agree that the latest change will make it more difficult for news media posts to fly.
Much will come down to the age-old trade-off between click-throughs and brand awareness.
The growth of the media’s use of Facebook Live suggests that brand awareness remains important, although the latest research from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Online Journalism suggests that greater video content may not necessarily be the great white hope, unless it’s a breaking news story.
One thing that has become crystal clear in recent times is the role of both Facebook and Twitter as an echo chamber.
It’s difficult to work out whether this latest shift will magnify that effect, as friends continue to preach to the converted at the expense of thought-provoking and challenging material from outside the circle.
Meanwhile, how’s that being human project going?
A relative of mine took exception to a one-word Facebook post selling a story about a sex attacker in his city.
The word: ‘Disgusting’.
He was concerned that the site was encouraging something close to vigilante action by posting such a large volume of sex and porn-related stories, and then adding its own emotive take on them.
I quickly became bored of posts linking to stories about death crashes or child illness where it appeared to be compulsory to include the phrases ‘thoughts with the family’ or ‘this is heartbreaking.’
It’s a tricky ask, this social media voice business.
Getting the tone right as well as interesting and enticing can involve squaring a lot of circles.
But when it works, it works.
g social
In the mean time, good luck to all journalists in making Facebook work for you.
This chap seems to have got the right idea…
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