Freedom of Information requests can uncover great stories and startling statistics that authorities are trying to hide.
But all too often they result in ‘blanket data journalism’ – smothering readers with a glut of figures and percentages, with a shortage of that oxygen known as human interest.
This bugbear started to twitch in the Ealing and Acton Gazette dated Friday 23 May with ‘Crime and punishment’ as the splash headline, and the sub-heading: ‘Policing and detection statistics show Ealing is performing well against other areas’.
This story listed thousands of crimes in 23 local suburbs, ranking those with the highest and lowest volumes of crimes, and the highest and lowest detection rates, then comparing some figures with those from four years ago.
There were 5,311 less crimes recorded in the whole of Ealing than in 2009, and nearly 24pc of these were solved, 2pc better than the rest of London.
East Acton had the highest numbers of crime at 2,112; Northfields had the lowest at 575 (yes, it’s ‘Northfields’ with an ‘s’, not ‘Northfield’ as appeared four times in the report); Southall Green had the highest detection rate at 31.7pc; Hangar Hill had the lowest at 13.5pc.
But these – and piles more figures, percentages and comparisons between 2013 and 2009 – were simply regurgitations of police statistics and self-aggrandizing quotes, with little original analysis.
For instance, several suburbs with the lowest crime levels – like Northfields, Cleveland and Hangar Hill – also had the lowest detection rates, hardly flattering for the police, but this theme wasn’t explored.
Nor were the types of crime explained: were there more or less murders, muggings, burglaries, arsons and violent crimes? The Gazette doesn’t say.
What about the age of victims – were the old safer or more at risk, were criminals getting older or younger, were there more male or female criminals, what types of crimes were happening, at what times of day, and what sort of punishments were being handed out? The Gazette doesn’t say.
And what about a few real-life examples of criminals, reformed criminals, victims of crime or even a general vox pop: what were local people saying about police activity and safety from the streets of Ealing? There’s nothing like this in the Gazette’s report.
The only quotes were dull ones, like this from a police chief: “Since the introduction of the Local Policing Model in September, East Acton has benefited from increased dedicated ward staff in addition to a Neighbourhood Policing Team.”
It’s all very well using FoIs to ‘demand’ the latest crime figures (although surely the police were happy to provide these?), but what about asking more human interest questions relating to those statistics, and planning interviews that mean something to readers?
Asked properly and critically, FoI requests can create great journalism, providing opportunities for real stories about real people; otherwise the authorities take control, and can end up owning stories that were supposed to hold them to account.
This inability to take hold of a story by the scruff of the neck was shown again on page two, in a tale headlined: ‘Early result for project to curtail gang crime’.
This could have been a gripping story, reporting how a gang called the Punjabi Bad Mundaz (meaning bad men) had been broken up by a top team of crime-fighters.
But it ended up as a reflection of vapid police-speak, with this as the introduction: “A gang has been disbanded as a result of a new borough-wide scheme designed by the police and Ealing Council.”
And this jargon-filled third par: “It works by police inviting selected youths and their parents or guardians to a neutral place to discuss concerns, reveal evidence of gang activity and together find diversions, including work placements, assistance in securing places at school or college, or employment.”
How about an old-fashioned dose of plain English, like this: “Teenage gangsters have been scared away from a life of crime in Ealing by a police and council team who challenged their bad behaviour.”
The story told us that the Southall-based gang had 15 members aged between 14 and 16 “who publicised themselves on social media sites”, but that was all it said: it failed to say anything else about their background, what they’d been up to, any victims, or damage they’d caused.
The police and council would undoubtedly have wanted it this way because of political correctness and the sensitivity of dealing with minors: but since when has this meant the media mollycoddling stories so that the reader is left asking multiple questions or, worse still, bored?
The Gazette did contain a few good, readable issues such as: compensation for residents hit by high-speed train plans, on page five; a local planning victory over garden flats, on page seven; and campaigners’ court action against a £40m shopping centre expansion, on page 12.
And ‘Waiter fined for taking bus for 40-minute spin’ on page nine was the sort of fabulous court story local papers excel at, telling how a Southall restaurant worker “obsessed with buses” walked into Hounslow bus garage, took a jacket off a hanger and drove off in a double-decker.
But the Gazette – along with many other local newspapers – needs to become more pointed with its FoI requests, and a little less obliging with the way it covers sanitised police press releases.
Overall, this mainly-free weekly was pretty thin on content: just 49 stories on 19 editorial pages in a 44-page main book that was wrapped in a four-page advertising jacket, plus a 56-page ‘Ealing Property’ pull-out.
The Gazette – a Trinity Mirror paper whose staff will soon be based in Watford – sold 2,417 copies a week at 80p in 2013 (now 90p when sold), delivering another 43,852 copies door-to-door, although this seems to be changing to free pick-ups this year.