Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Flim flammery

One of the biggest crimes in journalism is spinning a shit story into a headline grabbing story, in my humble opinion.
An even greater crime is to spin an already good story, in an attempt to make it better.
The first thing I teach my chaps (and chapesses) is to be honest in what you are writing. If the story isn't what you first thought, see if there is anything worth salvaging for a filler or nib, then walk away.
If you feel the need to spin a story then surely it's not that good a story in the first place. A great story tells itself.
It's too easy to fib a little to make the busted flush into a lead or, with an extra level of deceit, a splash.
But these stories will create journalists, editors and the paper so many problems, both short term and long ,they are very rarely worth the initial lies to get them into the news list.
Short term you are open to, at worst claims of defamation or PCC complaints, at best a snotty call to the editor who is forced to write a clarification, correction or, god forbid, a bloody apology.
Long term, your paper and staff lose all credibility. The trust of your readers is a hard won thing and all too easy to lose.
Recently I went away for a week to come back to the mother of all splash headlines. It wasn't technically wrong but it did give the wrong impression of what the story was about.
We had a serious PR problem that week (caused by my boss, so no heads rolled). As soon as I saw the level of vitriol towards us for what we had done, I apologised in an editorial with a front page trail.
It was the right thing to do but it didn't have to happen. The story was good enough without the extra splash of sauce my boss had added.
My rules are be fair and accurate and balanced.
If the quote you get from the council/cops doesn't fit the story question your original source. It may be that they or the press office are fibbing. It's your job to determine who is the bullshit merchant.
Get evidence. Documents, letters, emails or confessions written in blood. Make sure they are real. With these it is easy to see who is telling the truth.
Don't lie to your boss. It's easy to give the right answers in order to get your story into the paper but I would rather stop any problems getting in there in the first place.
I am far harder on a reporter who is rumbled for porkies after we have gone to press than I would be if they admit it's bollocks earlier on.
I don't mind reporters telling me they don't know, because I know they can find out. I hate to hear the words 'I think', 'I assume' or 'I'm 90 per cent sure' before a sentence.
Assumptions and thoughts are great for philosophers, beatniks and hippies. But we deal in facts. Hard, cold and impossible to challenge.
I know it's tempting to think you will be the one who won't get rumbled, but eventually you will.
I remember the tale of the reporter in Scotland who didn't want to travel down to the Borders at night on a doorknocking job (about 100 miles away). So he told the desk a couple of hours after being dispatched that no-one was in. Easy.
Except for the fact a snapper also dispatched by the desk found the house firmly ablaze half an hour later.
Another guy I knew made up stories to get at the top of the news list. He would be king of the conference and bullshit his way through the week until miraculously his brilliant exclusive evaporated into thin air.
He was only rumbled when, on one particularly tense Christmas Eve, the boss really needed his 'top tale' as the rest of the news list crumbled before him.
Editor demanded to meet the reporters source to crowbar the story out of him and after about half an hour of strong debate, the bullshitting hack admitted his lies.
His Christmas present was a P45.
The best I save until last. One hack was so desperate to see his name on the front page of his local rag he would sneak into his office in the dead of night on the deadline eve and spike the other reporters tales.
I shit you not.
Because of the way things worked, his tales would be the only ones ready for the tight morning deadlines and the splash was his.
After a few weeks of this nonsense the news editor and the hard-working reporter who had the majority of their stories binned hid in the office and discovered him at it.
Be fair, be accurate, be balanced. The only complaint they can have is they don't like the story.
Then you truly can tell them to go and fuck themselves.

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