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.

 

How to smash that media job interview

They’re the sort of emails that can send you on a bit of an emotional rollercoaster.

Thank you for the application for the post of social media engineer. We’re delighted to offer you an interview next Tuesday. Please prepare a five-minute presentation on how you’d revitalise the Quiksnax savoury food brand’s Instagram presence in Outer Mongolia.

Or something like that.

Anyway, you’ve got a media job interview.

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Once you’ve got over your initial panic: what next? How do you prepare?

Here are some thoughts, updated from a blog I wrote nearly three years ago, as our students, and their counterparts around the country, prepare for what could be the first big interview of their lives.

 

1. Do your homework

You need to make your interviewer think you’ve ate, slept and drunk their product, business, publication, website or media outlet in the last 72 hours. Maybe not even slept. If you’re really smart, they’ll already know you through work placements or networking. But if they don’t, make them your new Mastermind specialist subject. Flatter them with the extent of your research.

2. Make a memorable first impression

That first minute or so is crucial, however much of a cliche it sounds. Eye contact, a firm handshake, a genuine smile and a confident style all go a very long way. As do clothes which are smart but instantly forgettable.

3. Keep making an impression

Your goal is to make them think you’re someone they want on their team. Keep smiling. Not in a weird, inappropriate way. In a way that persuades them you’re a glass half-full radiator who’ll fit in and be a joy to work with. Demonstrate the passion and enthusiasm that you’ve written about in your CV.  Bring the stuff about work placements and your own media projects to life.

4. Come armed with stories to tell

It’s election time, when politicians answer the questions they want to answer rather than the ones they’ve actually been asked. Take a leaf out of their book by finding slick ways to slip your anecdotes and examples into the conversation.

Have answers to predictable questions up your sleeve. If it’s a journalism job, be ready for ‘what’s the best story you’ve ever written’, ‘what apps do you use’, ‘who’s your best contact’ and ‘how would you go about getting to know the area’. And those chestnuts about a time when you had to overcome difficulty, or how your friends would describe you.

5. Ask a killer question yourself

Try to use your questions to show your skills and your commitment, and avoid working your way through a tedious list of administrative points. The best question I’ve come across recently is a cunning one: have you any feedback for me? Do you have any concerns about my ability to do this job? And ask them why they love working there.

Above all else, be confident without showing arrogance, and enthusiastic without becoming annoying.

In short, show the confident humility that is the hallmark of a great media professional.

And the very best of luck.

Finding another Brenda from Bristol: Top tips for the perfect vox pop

I took to the road with my students last week.

Bath Road, in fact. A busy shopping street in Cheltenham at around 9.30 in the morning.

My mission on this local election morning: to show them how to do vox pops.

The last time I’d stalked reluctant opinion-givers down a street was at least a decade ago.

I had visions of making even more of a fool of myself in front of my students than I normally do.

But the old magic, that old Wiltshire charm was still there.

It helped that we were talking about something reasonably inoffensive: whether they were voting, and the importance of exercising one’s democratic right.

I was vague about what sort of students I was with, and may have given the impression that we were doing some kind of Mr Cholmondley-Warner public information film.

But no matter. I persuaded a steady stream of people coming in and out of the bank to share their views – and even got one woman with a tale to tell about war veteran ancestors to repeat her motivational message after the first attempt was drowned out by a passing police car.

Of course the bar has been set high recently by the BBC man’s in the West, Jon Kay, who struck vox pop gold with Brenda from Bristol.

So how do we find the Brendas? What’s the best way to get people to talk? What’s the secret of a good vox pop?

These are some of the tips from a few of my journalistic pals.

1. Choose your spot

Post offices, bus stations, bus stops, shopping centre benches. Anywhere where people are sitting, standing or slow-moving targets.

2. Break news to them

As the great Tristan Cork from the Bristol Post pointed out, the reason Brenda works, the reason she’s such animated good value, is that Jon was breaking news to her.

3. Get your opening line right

Opinions varied on this.

Tristan offered this advice:

Tell people asap what you’re talking about – like first.
So if you say ‘hi I’m xxx from xxx and I was wondering if I could ask you some questions?’ It gives them the chance to say ‘no’
But if you say ‘I’m from the xxxx and we’re talking to people about xxxx’ then they instantly think ‘ooooo I’ve got something to say about that!’ and can’t help themselves.

And turn on the charm, as my friend Sian David from the Bristol Post suggests:

Smile. And don’t be nervous. Or pushy. Make friends so they are more likely to say yes to the photo/video.

But Tom Peck of the Independent just goes for it.

4. Go for people who look different

From my friend Aled Thomas at Gloucestershire Live came this gem: If they have extravagant hair, or a hat, they’re less likely to refuse the pic

5. Target groups of people

The Bath Chronicle’s Dan Evans had this to say:

My top tip would be target small groups. a. You can get three for the price of one. b. They’ll often say: ‘he’ll do it/she’ll do it’. c. Once b has happened you can then make the others feel guilty. Downside… you’ll still need to do more if you’re after a cross section, but if it’s about a gig or sports event that doesn’t matter so much.

In the vox pop numbers game, three seems to be a very useful crowd.

A group of two never works but three or four always does

6. Keep at it

This from Jordan Bhatt of the International Business Times:

And a final one from Esther Beadle, now in PR but previously of the Oxford Mail:

 

In among all the advice was an offshoot debate about whether vox pops are still worth doing in an age when everyone lays bare their innermost thoughts on Facebook and Twitter.

I think Brenda proves they still are.

Why we shouldn’t let political parties buy newspapers’ front pages

My brother-in-law’s loyalty to his local paper isn’t exactly rock solid.

But he does it buy it from time to time – including, I’m glad to say, when I come to visit.

I say does. But it would be more accurate to say did.

He’s decided never to buy the Westmorland Gazette ever again.

Because of its front page.

News front pages ought occasionally to wind readers up: otherwise, what’s the point?

But this wasn’t news. This was advertising. Conservative Party advertising.

And it wasn’t just the Westmorland Gazette.

wmg

The fake front page that angered my brother-in-law and many of his friends was mirrored in a number of other regional papers last week.

Buzzfeed’s incisive political editor Jim Waterson has analysed the areas chosen for this election advertising blitz, which saw four-page wraps enveloping the conventional newspapers, covering up those titles’ real front pages in territory where the Tories hope to cause major upsets.

One of these is the politically-active town of Kendal, where Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron’s Westmorland and Lonsdale seat appears to be in Tory sights.

It’s not gone down well, with more than 800 people signing a petition demanding the paper apologise for carrying the advertising.

There’s been condemnation from across the UK on Twitter, with an illuminating thread provoked by this tweet from Spectator editor Fraser Nelson.

 

In a blog Nelson suggests the practice of running such wrap ads is as much fake news as anything dreamed up by the lie machines of some American websites.

Ironically, that same – much-abused – phrase was used by the organisation that represents all the papers caught up in this row when the News Media Association was trumpeting the independent reliability of its member publications last week.

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The practice has been defended by the editor of the trade website Press Gazette, with Dom Ponsford arguing that titles cannot afford to turn down the business.

From a practical point of view, he’s right.

It looks as if the Conservatives will book more wraps between now and June 8 in a move that – because the advertising is generic – allows them to classify the spending as national (where the official ceiling is generous) rather than local (where there are more onerous limits).

Ad managers will be rubbing their hands with glee as the camera-ready ads catapult them towards their weekly targets.

Editors, I suspect, perhaps won’t be so happy.

For the last five years, they’ve had to roll over as wraps, partial wraps, takeover front pages and other wheezes play fast and loose with editorial space, with a mission creep that has rubbed out the red lines of old.

And they will be used to defending the sale of space to political parties inside their publications at times like these.

But what we’ve seen in the last week is something else.

This is Theresa May’s officials effectively buying the integrity and independence of regional titles which has been hard-won over decades and centuries – for the equivalent of 30 pieces of silver.

They know that many readers won’t see the ‘advertiser’s announcement’ caveat, but will believe the paper they rely on for an unbiased guide to life is suggesting they vote in a particular way. They know their message will be on display for several days on racks passed by thousands of people. And they know newspapers can’t afford to say no.

Dom Ponsford may be right that many of those now complaining about these wraps rarely buy the papers concerned.

But some, like my brother-in-law, do. Or, as I say, did.

It’s undeniable that papers need all the advertising they can get.

But they also need readers.

So they better hope money doesn’t come in one door only to disappear out of the next.

In the words of the investor, public speaker and entrepreneur Amy Rees Anderson: “Success will come and go, but integrity is forever.”

 

‘Be the best you can be’: the fight for press freedom starts with us

They say you should never meet your heroes.

And so perhaps it’s just as well I had to make a sharp exit from an event which featured former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger last week.

But before I dashed across Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire to show my face at a students’ night out pub quiz, I did get to hear from the man I believe to be one of the bravest journalists around.

Rusbridger was one of the guests at an event at Oxford University to launch an annual guide to the state of media freedom produced by the Campaign to Protect Journalists.

It wasn’t exactly a barrel of laughs, what with Syria, Bangladesh, Kenya, Trump’s USA – not to mention the UK, and the threatened Espionage Act plus the threatened Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act.

There were no easy answers.

But Rusbridger said his best advice was for journalists to be the best they can be.

He made the crucial point that we would never make progress on press freedom unless the public was on our side. And that wouldn’t happen unless journalism was a public service as valued as one of the emergency services.

There will be journalists who say it’s all very well for him: the business he once ran was cushioned by its trust status and Auto Trader sell-off cash. He’s never run a small regional newsdesk with the jagged edges of Chartbeat analytics graphs piercing his eyeballs into the wee small hours.

There may be grains of truth in that.

But Rusbridger was a digital pioneer who also showed the sort of courage – particularly in the face of intimidation by the tabloids, politicians and the intelligence services – that other editors only write about.

So as far as I’m concerned he knows what he’s talking about.

And it’s not just him who’s urging the media to put credibility, integrity and the hunt for the truth at the heart of all that they do.

A cracking speech by the comedian Hasan Minhaj at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner that Donald Trump failed to attend warned the press corps they had to ‘be on their A-game’ in the face of their president’s blustering bullying.

 

But we can’t do it alone.

By far the best contribution to the media website Press Gazette’s campaign to get more funding for journalism from Google and Facebook has been a well-worded submission to a committee of MPs from ITN.

pg campaign

It accuses Facebook of promoting virality over veracity, and both of profiting from the labour of others.

So it’s good to see Google taking action to ensure that searches don’t throw up links to websites that make up stories.

These things matter at the best of times.

But they matter in this country more than ever now that we are – from the dissolution of Parliament tomorrow – firmly in election campaign territory.

The biggest advertising spend by our political parties is expected to be on Facebook, so there is understandable concern at the versions of the truth that will course through our newsfeeds in the next few weeks.

But there is a glint of hope.

It’s on the other side of the North Sea in a country with a population which is just eight per cent of the UK’s.

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Over in Norway, a subscription system which has grown out of a very workable registration regime appears to be paying dividends.

Putting the genie back in the bottle for a regional journalism paywall here is the stuff of deluded dreams, unless we’re going back to the editorial staff numbers of the late 80s.

But, as the News Media Association launches its own offensive to fly the flag for regional journalism integrity, there is for once some warmth from Scandinavia.

What the Norway Way seems to show is the power of ‘better journalism’: real, thoughtful, relevant reporting, which puts communities and people first.

Just feast your eyes on this, from the man in charge of Amedia, the wonderfully-named Pal Nedregotten:

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We can make it easy for people to have a fragile, unhealthy relationship with us, feeding them brightly-coloured sweets and then wondering why they get hyperactive, sneering and fractious.

Or we can – as Alan Rusbridger suggests – strive to serve up a slightly more balanced diet.

One that provides greater, longer-lasting nourishment, on which relationships can be built, and credibility sustained.

And one that means we have the stomach for the vital battles for press freedom that lie ahead – whether around the corner or around the world.

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.