Five things we’ve learned from our own ‘fake news’ story

I ran into our new press officer last night. She was hungry.

“All I’ve managed to eat today has been a Snickers bar,” she said.

It had been a busy old day.

Not only were we hosting a general election debate while trying to find students to be interviewed for a TV news bulletin on the poll, we were also at the centre of our own little media storm.

Our film production students have to complete an assessment which requires them to produce a video that goes stratospherically viral. The more views on social media platforms, the better. And it doesn’t matter too much if the content has been staged.

And that’s the problem.

Which journalist wouldn’t want to do a story about a student who files a vital essay on the dot of midnight from a noisy nightclub, having been dragged out by his friends against his will. And then gets a first for it?

That was the story put out by the Press Association agency – one whose byword is fast accuracy – this week.

Except none of that happened. Because the footage was concocted as part of that project, with the business school student playing a role.

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As the story fell to pieces yesterday afternoon, it struck me there were a few lessons to be learned.

PA’s checks may not be as rigorous as they once were

Shortly after the film actor Christopher Lee died two years ago, I met someone who worked for the Press Association. I was impressed – if a little amazed – to hear that PA refused to put out a story about his demise until its Hollywood reporter had seen a copy of the death certificate.

The initial story here was based on – admittedly protracted – conversations with two students on Facebook. I haven’t got a problem with that at all. But why PA didn’t put in a call to the university press office is completely beyond me. The implication was that you could get a first for a piece of work you submit at the last minute from a noisy, drink-soaked nightclub. Wouldn’t you want a comment on that?

If that had happened, PA wouldn’t have been left with egg on its face.

Our students are REALLY good at sticking to a script

Leaving aside the video-making creativity that went into this, I’m also slightly in awe of their ability to stay in character. It might have been better for the uni if they hadn’t, and – as our head of media school Anne Dawson has said – we don’t condone lying to the press.

They still don’t regard Facebook as a trusted source

I’m fascinated by the fact that people regarded as living their lives on social media still don’t regard it as a source to be trusted, or a way of verifying information.  I’m not sure where that leaves us. What form of communication would have persuaded them to step out of character and tell the real truth? What is verification?

‘A lie can get round the world before the truth has put its boots on.’

That comment – probably from Jonathan Swift – has never been more appropriate. This is the sort of story that journalists want to be true – and there’ll be some outlets who won’t want to go to the hassle of changing their original versions. It was – and remains – difficult for our press office to put the genie back into the bottle.

EVERYONE now knows about the Uni of Gloucestershire

I’m incredibly proud to work here. But our profile isn’t the highest, and a lot of potential students have never heard of us. I don’t believe that all publicity is good publicity. But getting our name in front of teenagers won’t do us any harm at all.

That’s my view. Here’s a very different one from my friend Tom Gibbon, head of web at Gloucestershire Live.

 

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What DO readers really want?

There are some things I really miss about running a newsdesk.

Rising to the challenge of a big, breaking story; the shared satisfaction of a job well done or a campaign well won; and motivating and mentoring my own little team of miracle-workers are the ones that spring to mind.

But there are a few more that I don’t miss in the slightest.

Regular weekend working, finding nibs for p29 of the Somerset Guardian on a Tuesday night – and second-guessing the audience.

It’s that last one which keeps editors, news editors, what’s on writers, and sports journalists – not to mention managing directors – up at night.

They’ll be checking Chartbeat – or whatever other site they use – last thing at night and first thing in the morning, risking the ire of partners in the search for reassurance that targets have been met.

Sometimes – a lot of the time – it can feel like mission impossible.

It was one of those times that led to this question being posed on Facebook by someone in a newsroom not a million miles from me:

 

What do people actually want to read about in the press?

I felt her pain.

There were some cracking contributions – some serious, some not so.

Perhaps the best combined both approaches:

The unbiased truth. And puppies.

Journalists have been searching for the holy grail of what readers really want for centuries.

After putting together a particularly splendid paper, I used to quote a then-not-yet-disgraced radio DJ, one of whose catchphrases was: “If this don’t turn them on, they ain’t got no switches.”

Those switches can be incredibly hard to find at times.

My best guess at a recipe for story success in the regional media has always involved a well-known community figure caught up in some kind of intrigue: an arrest, an emergency, an investigation.

Failing that, there’s this little list I used to hawk around training sessions and the occasional lecture.

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I like to think I wasn’t far off the great Harold Evans’s definition of what makes great news.

“News is people. It is people talking and people doing. Committees, cabinets and courts are people; so are fires, accidents and planning decisions. They are only news because they involve and affect people.”

But those very people can be fickle. What they go for one day can flop spectacularly when served up on another.

Plus there’s always this little beauty to bear in mind.

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Those bloody readers. Telling us they want more local news, telling us they want more good news, then posting smart-arse ‘slow news day?’ comments on Facebook when we try to respond.

But – as often happens – reassurance came in the form of Trinity Mirror digital publishing director David Higgerson’s latest blog on social media.

It was packed with examples of positive, heart-warming, good news stories that had really taken off on Facebook – from charity fundraising stunts through retiring police officers to one which simply reported that no horses had died at the Grand National.

I was cheered also by the response on Facebook and from online commenters to the Plymouth Herald’s coverage of a literal storm in a coffee cup.

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Not for the first time in the last week, there was no love lost for The Sun, which thought that a group of police officers having a coffee break was a story.

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And finally came proof of something that I’m going to lazily call an old adage: that teachers learn at least as much from their students as students learn from them.

I stumbled across a blog from one of our third year students, which actually said what I had been trying to say. Only better.

Here’s our Sophie Jones:

“We consume the news that we want to consume and whether that’s good news, bad news or neutral is up to you to decide.”

In the end, perhaps, the Facebook algorithms and our own synapses combine to give us the news we deserve.

As Sophie so rightly suggests, it’s a state of mind. If we go looking for bad news, we’ll find it.

We’ll never entirely know what our readers want.

But, as journalists, we’re readers too.

And the more we go looking for good news, the more we might persuade others to do the same.

 

 

Was Broadchurch Echo editor Maggie right to spike suicide attempt story?

The symbolism couldn’t have been clearer.

Looking over her breathtakingly beautiful patch, indefatigable editor Maggie Radcliffe stood several feet higher up the slope than her new cold-hearted cliche boss.

She had both high grounds – real and moral – as she told newspaper company manager Caroline Hughes: “Screw you, petal.”

Apparently this is what they say in America at such times.

The final straw for Maggie – who’d already lost her office, her reporter and her power to decide the splash – was Caroline’s insistence that the Broadchurch Echo cover bereaved dad Mark Latimer’s suicide attempt.

Maggie had already told Mark’s wife Beth that she wouldn’t be covering what she felt was a very private near-tragedy.

And she stuck to her guns in her clifftop confrontation with management – telling her boss that she was firing her from her life.

None of this really happened, of course.

It’s a TV drama, albeit one which has half the nation on the edge of their seats.

And one which seems to have felt the pulse of the regional newspaper industry, complete with its daily moral dilemmas.

So was Maggie right?

It’s a good question, as you’d expect from one of our country’s top political writers. Tom Peck is real, by the way.

But he seemed to be in a minority, at least on Twitter.

I’ve never made a secret of my admiration for Maggie, or of my certainty that local editors such as her are vitally needed.

So it won’t be a surprise to hear that I’m on her side this time, too.

For an ethical journalist, covering suicides – and attempted suicides – is about as difficult as it gets.

How do you navigate your way through the moral maze of a private tragedy that might – in the case of a motorway incident – be seen by thousands of people, or – in the case of someone who hangs himself because he’s being hounded by debt-collectors – raise issues of proper public interest? Which of these deaths – or near-deaths – justifies the unforgiving spotlight of publicity?

We are lucky enough to have one of Britain’s finest voluntary organisations, The Samaritans, to help us here, with its media guidelines.

But in the end, the real decision-making comes down to the moral compass of editors. Editors like Maggie.

When there is an actual death, perversely, things are a little easier. There has to be an inquest, which puts matters in the public domain, even if editors rightly choose not to cover most suicide hearings.

But, no matter how well-known Mark Latimer is in his community, no matter how high profile the crime that brought him to the top of that cliff, his was a private horror.

You might be able to justify an anonymised emergency services report.

But in the absence of his and his family’s co-operation, I wouldn’t have named him.

There’s a question I used to ask myself on such occasions: What good will come of this?

The answer, to me, is as clear as the water off West Bay.

None.

 

 

Editor Maggie may go….but newsrooms need leaders more than ever

The scene was set in the not hugely subtle location of a graveyard.

Together they sat on a bench: the parish vicar….and the editor of the local paper.

Both feeling surplus to requirements. Both in need of greater community support.

It was very much a sideshow to the main business of the latest series of the wonderful ITV drama Broadchurch last night.

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But to me – and plenty of other journalists on Twitter – it was a fascinating little mini sub-plot.

I’ve written before about my admiration for Broadchurch Echo editor Maggie Radcliffe.

That was in the days when she had staff. Now there’s just her – and she’s about to lose her office and be forced to work from a regional HQ.

So it was, fresh from a showdown with the boss who had replaced her splash about a controversial planning application with a cliched one about cats, the tireless Maggie found herself comparing notes with the Rev Paul Coates.

As they both bemoaned their community’s blasé, fair (or, more accurately, bad) weather attitude to their respective services, Maggie’s dedication to protecting public-spirited journalism struck a chord with plenty of real hacks up and down the country.

And there was particular interest over the border from Dorset in Devon, where there’s been a changing of the guard in my home county’s Trinity Mirror newsrooms.

There, the journalist who taught me more about news-editing than anyone else, the indefatigable Jim Parker, is now in charge of four weekly newspapers that only a couple of years ago had their own editors.

At the same time, another journalist for whom I have great admiration, Patrick Phelvin, now presides over a giant single website covering the whole of the sprawling county of Devon apart from Plymouth.

It’s only a couple of weeks since another shake-up by Trinity Mirror axed the editor of the Grimsby Telegraph and its sister title in Scunthorpe, as well as the editor of the Lincolnshire Echo.

As departing Telegraph editor Michelle Lalor says, this leaves a leadership vacuum in some big communities.

It’s not just Trinity Mirror: Newsquest has also merged plenty of editors’ roles in recent years, although it is to be hoped that the latest partial abandonment of its soulless subbing hubs might signal an upsurge in local self-determination.

If there are real deputies left to lead newsrooms and champion the needs of their towns and cities, there may be an argument to be made for sacrificing the salaries of big earners rather than the troops on the ground.

But newsrooms without supportive, energetic, eyeball-to-eyeball leadership will serve up anaemic, one-size-fits-all, hollowed-out products that avoid the risk-taking and occasional unpopularity that are the hallmarks of the very best journalism.

It looks to me as if Maggie Radcliffe will join the long line of real editors who quit rather than go along with cutbacks that cross a line of conscience.

But if she puts up a fight, there’ll be plenty of us cheering from the sofa sidelines.

 

 

Why the media is stronger together

I’ve been holding out for some heroes in recent days.

I’m aiming to highlight one a week as I teach some of our students about politics.

It’s by far and away my favourite thing to teach.

Because, as campaigning reporter Gavin MacFadyen once said: “Good journalism is always political journalism.”

Every week, I’ll be spending a minute or two on one of my journalism heroes – starting on Monday with the woman who asked Donald Trump that question, BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg.

To come are Manchester Evening News social affairs editor Jennifer Williams, HSJ reporter Shaun Lintern and Andrew Norfolk from The Times, among others.

All of them have exposed major failings in public services.

And all of them are true to a description of journalism that I have come to only recently.

The late and much-missed New York journalist Wayne Barrett said reporters were ‘detectives for the people.’

Gratifyingly, it’s a theme that came up an awful lot when my colleagues and I were interviewing would-be students a few days ago. Several talked about journalism being the bridge between the people and the powers-that-be, a way of making sense of the world, and a vital tool in holding authority to account.

Not so gratifyingly, waves of cuts have left newsrooms woefully underpowered in this battle.

Which is why the announcement from the BBC of 150 extra reporters to cover local authorities across Britain is a welcome one.

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It might be that is a sticking plaster solution for severed limb, as Press Gazette editor Dom Ponsford called it. And I share the concern of people who say the licence fee shouldn’t be used to subsidise businesses with avaricious shareholders.

It’s time the newspaper industry stopped wasting its breath on railing against the BBC

But there is much work to be done in patrolling the corridors of power, and still plenty of hope that true public service journalism can command an audience.

Some of this hope emerges in the fantastic labour of love that is the fascinating book Lost for Words: How Can Journalism Survive the Decline of Print?

While still more is suggested by new research showing how much time people spend on reading print journalism.

On Monday, I’ll be taking some of our students to our regional BBC TV studios to further a potential partnership there. Last Thursday, one of the newsdesk team from our local Trinity Mirror newsroom helped out at a news day.

We’re in the process of developing stronger links with our BBC radio station, with Newsquest newsrooms, and with independent websites and magazines.

In our privileged position, we can see that all providers of journalism face similar problems.

It’s time the newspaper industry stopped wasting its breath on railing against the BBC for overblown past slights, and started seeing broadcasters as allies.

In America, Trump has forced media outlets to co-operate and support each other in the common cause of holding him to account.

We can make it work here, too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Taking on Trump’s war on truth

I’ve read thousands of words this weekend about the new leader of the free world.

And yet, in so many ways, words have failed us.

Even us journalists.

An air of utter disbelief has greeted the Trump administration’s first weekend in power, with extraordinary untruths from his key aides.

ITV News quite rightly made the most of the concept of the ‘alternative facts’ term used by Kellyanne Conway, while the BBC bravely waded into the cackhanded attempt at recreating 1984 by Sean Spicer.

It’s clear this is a deliberate and calculated tactic by the regime to muddy every possible water so that voters view the truth as something that can never quite be known.

When CNN was singled out for particular abuse by Trump a couple of weeks ago, the channel’s rivals didn’t all exactly leap to its defence.

But this weekend, CNN got it right.

It didn’t broadcast Spicer’s press conference live, instead choosing to report it later, after analysing and underlying those blatant rewrites of history.

One of my favourite quotes – from the tireless peace campaigner Martin Niemoller – seems particularly telling here.

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Journalists – in the USA and beyond – must stand together.

If Trump refuses to take CNN’s questions – or any other media’s – then the press corps should walk out.

If he continues to attack the fourth estate, they should boycott his press conferences – or at least refuse to show them live and unexpurgated.

As we mourn the passing of American journalist Wayne Barrett, who beautifully described reporters as ‘the detectives of the people’, we must commit to follow that mantra.

If we don’t rise to this challenge, we might as well all pack up and go home.

 

The new president may not have started a military conflict yet.

But Trump has launched a war on the truth.

And we must stand together and fight back.

‘Putting on your happy face’: journalists suffer from anxiety more than we let on

It’s a profession where stereotypes abound.

They may be outdated, living on only in TV dramas and novels.

But in the minds of most ‘civilians’, many of whom will also have long memories of the phone hacking scandal, journalists will always be brash, overconfident and in your face.

Some are.

But most aren’t.

And an awful lot would seriously struggle to summon up the sort of assertiveness and self-belief that is at the heart of our industry’s popular image.

Which is why it was so refreshing to see a reporter writing about her battle with anxiety today.

Daily Post journalist Amelia Shaw has opened up about the exhausting reality of living with an anxiety disorder.

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There are Amelias in a lot of newsrooms – as well as, I suspect, on every journalism course in the country.

That happy face which Amelia paints on every day – with the help of medication – is one worn by countless other journalists up and down the land.

Some of my friends are among them.

Theirs is a secret known only to their closest colleagues: to all intents and purposes they will appear to be fully functioning media professionals.

This is more than just self-doubt of the sort that some of our top writers regularly experience.

This is destructive, debilitating and damaging stuff.

That Amelia is able to meet it head-on – not just as a journalist, but also as a mum and a partner – is a huge credit to her, her family, her friends and her newsroom bosses.

 

I hope her story encourages more journalists to come forward with their own.

And that students whose journalistic aspirations appear threatened by anxiety disorders can look forward to a more optimistic future.