Sunday, 1 June 2014

The English Resident asks: “Read all about…. what?”

Imagine you’re an editor, news editor or reporter on a local newspaper.

Now imagine an anonymous email drops into your In Box. An email written ALL IN CAPITALS and in the language of a slightly obsessed grumpy old man with too much time on his hands. It tells you that a disused school building has become the haunt of junkies and pushers, and a popular dogging spot for illicit couples of all kinds.

What do you do? Do you:

(    a)  Treat it as a news lead?
- Send reporter with a burly photographer (or in these days of downsizing, a reporter with a camera and their scariest looking friend for company/protection) to check it out themselves. Ideally, find some of the druggies who use the building and interview/photograph them, anonymously if necessary. Even if no-one’s about, at least check for signs of recent drug use and free-range orgies.
- Walk round the neighbourhood and ask the locals what’s going on, what they know and if any complaints have been made.
- Talk to the local police chief, ideally quoting him (or her) by name.
- Approach the authority responsible for the building and get a quote from the respective official (named). Even if none is provided, a “No comment” is more telling that a pre-prepared manifesto.
- Make a note in your calendar to follow up the story in the weeks to come.

(    b) Copy/paste the anonymous email rank on the newspaper blog, under a headline liberally decorated with exclamation marks (that’s another rant, for another day) then walk away and leave it to usually anonymous commenters to talk about it among themselves?


(    c)  Put it in your ‘cyber spike’ folder and get on with the report of the local football match. [Note: In early-mid 1980s, every reporter’s desk had a ‘spike’ – a small wooden base with a metal spike where they impaled papers they’d either finished with or didn’t plan to use, but which might be needed at a later date.]

I know what I would do. (For the record, in case you hadn't guessed, I'd go for a) or if I came up against a brick wall - reluctantly - c). Anything but publishing unsubstantiated rumours that b) entails.)

But maybe I’m looking at things the wrong way?

I started my working life as a reporter on local newspapers in the UK. That was where I learned that journalism isn’t just a matter of being relatively well-informed and able to turn a fancy phrase or two.

It’s about being curious, asking questions, picking at the scab until you reveal the extent of the story lurking beneath the surface, and following up until you get answers. Sometimes, it means being a pain in the backside, and of course that means developing a thick hide and the ability to brush off personal attacks if something you write hits a nerve.

I learned that the facts and the reported views of involved people (named wherever possible to give credence) are usually more than enough to make a good story, and that there’s no need for the reporter to add their opinion. If it was felt it was a matter that required comment from the paper, it was handed over for the “Leader” column, where readers knew the editor – who they knew by name – stated his view on a story in the news.

Now, I know that much has changed in the years since my reporting days, and so have my circumstances.

We’ve seen the rise of ‘citizen journalism’ due to the instantly accessible nature of the internet, increasing pressure on editors to get material for free (often at the expense of quality and balance) and sometimes – frankly – lazy journalism.

I also now live in Greece, where the tradition of local newspapers is rather different to what I learned all those years ago in that messy, smoke-filled newsroom in South London.

There ARE some local newspapers here that make an effort to present a more balanced and complete form of reportage, and I applaud them. I’m delighted to say that one covering my own neighbourhood falls into that category. But, sadly, many seem to be caught in the  dual traps of antiquated amateurism and the blogosphere.

I know I’ll never be cured of the reporter’s bug, just as my Other Half knows that for the rest of our lives together he’ll be hearing my frequent rants when I see what I consider a failure of journalism – be it in print, online, broadcast, local or national.

But really, is it too much to ask that when a headline screams at me “Read all about it” (note, no exclamation marks required), the words that follow will actually leave me more informed than when I started reading?

1 comment:

  1. Did the headline include "ΣΟΚ!!!!!" (the use of capital letters and a minimum of three exclamation marks being essential)?