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The journalism complaints that miss the point

In Insider, Issues by Andrew BrookesLeave a Comment

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Every journalist makes a mistake from time to time. We’re only human after all. Yet quite often you find yourself accused yourself of mistakes and errors that just aren’t fair and that are infuriating.

I’m regularly reminded of this feeling when reading the tweets of the team behind the BBC’s #tomorrowspaperstoday service. If you’re not aware, this service involves a team of BBC journalists – lead by Neil Henderson (@hendopolis) – tweeting the front pages of the next morning’s papers. It’s fascinating for news junkies (guilty) and quite often the last thing I look at before I go to bed.

Each front page (although The Sun seems to have somewhat stupidly opted out) is tweeted along with the splash headline. Simple enough, right? Not for some, however.

On a worryingly regular basis the team seems to have to explain this premise to angry people on Twitter. Most of the time they are ‘shooting the messenger’ and criticising the guys on the basis of what actually appears on the front pages. Depending on which shade of nutter you happen to be, Neil and the gang are apparently anti-Corbyn, anti-Brexit or anti whatever people are frothing at that day.

Presumably the same people aren’t found wasting their days charging into newsagents and asking them to account for the third par of the Times splash but on Twitter its seen as fair game. Especially since Neil and co work for the BBC, which so happens to be a red rag to a certain type of bull (aptly one that normally spouts bull).

The #tomorrowspaperstoday team do the best thing you can as a professional – politely, calmly and self-deprecatingly point out the person’s error and hope that common sense prevails.

Whether on Facebook, Twitter or the phone, I often found myself wearily having to explain something that you’d like to think didn’t need explaining.

Shooting the messenger is, however, easy to do and the front pages on Twitter example is just the most common I now see as an outsider. It’s a classic case of someone being criticised personally despite the fact that the real  problem is with what’s actually being said in the ‘content’ itself.

This regularly occurs if you interview someone controversial – be that the council leader, the MP or a prominent campaigner for a hotly disputed cause. The point of these pieces is to shine a light on the views of someone whose thoughts are in the public interest. Like the splash of the Mail in the case above, the comments from a council leader on a tax rise are bound to upset someone. It’s for you to put them in the public domain to be debated.

It’s often argued that your job is not to uncritically publish the views of others. That is, of course, fair. It infuriates me to see press releases slapped in to pages with fluffy quotes included – although having seen the lack of resources on all too many small titles I can see exactly why it happens. We certainly let through more than I would have like towards the end of my stint as deputy editor.

Yet, assuming you haven’t used a press release, the time to be critical comes in your questioning and in fair reporting. No-one hears what you ask or sees what you leave out when they accuse you of being ‘soft’ on someone they don’t like.

But, while it’s easy to get all high and mighty about holding people to account, people forget that the sheer act of publishing what someone has said, word for word, is an important part of that. If someone doesn’t like what they’re reading, they can act on that. Whether it’s a letter of complaint or the way they choose to vote, they can make their own judgement and act accordingly. They shouldn’t be hitting out at the people who give them that information – that’s spectacularly missing the point. Shut down that source of information and what will you have left to make your choice? Propaganda leaflets come election time? Good luck with that.

In a polarised world online, that rational and sane reaction is lost more than ever it seems. It’s not Neil’s fault if you don’t like the Mail or the Guardian. Indeed, it’s good of him to give us the chance to critique their coverage. This particular band of messengers needs supporting not shooting. It’s a shame more people don’t.