30 January 2015

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Dyson at Large: FoI requests can mean lazy journalism

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.


  1. Adrian

    Steve – your points may be valid and in an ideal world more time would have been spent on some of the stories. However, the edition in question was put together by one reporter with help from the news editor, and they certainly could not be labelled ‘lazy’ for their output that week.

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  2. Desker

    Pretty thin on pages as very thin on staff. No-one has been more lethal than TM in the south

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  3. TheLNH

    Sounds like a very understaffed newspaper, reliant on churning press releases to fill pages, and possibly one whose lawsuit-phobic publishers don’t like hard/negative stories.

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  4. Golam Murtaza

    As above…the newspaper is the way it is because, surprise, surprise, it probably doesn’t have nearly enough staff. Of course our wonderful senior manager who have created this situation think that decent news stories somehow magic themselves out of thin air.

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  5. Ex snapper, London

    The journos at this title are amongst some of the most hard working I have had the pleasure to work with. Certainly not lazy. Give them a smaller workload and their editors more time to supervise them and they could knock out a better product.

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  6. Jimbledon

    It’s always unfortunate when newspapers fall short in this way. The reason is rarely to do with laziness on the part of the reporters – it’s more often than not a reflection of the owner’s failure to invest in enough staff to do the job properly. It’s soul-destroying having to put your name to something you know isn’t very good and ought to be better researched and written.

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  7. Steve Dyson, Birmingham

    Adrian’s point is well made. Note the headline is not ‘lazy journalists’ but ‘lazy journalism’, and the latter in this case appears to have been created by short staffing. Same result for the readers, unfortunately.

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  8. lol

    @ Adrian

    That’s probably worse.

    At least if it was ‘lazy’ or whatever the problems highlighted could be rectified but if it’s a because the paper is run on a shoestring it sounds systematic.

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  9. Old Git

    It is indeed ‘Northfields’, Steve. And it’s ‘Hanger Hill’, not ‘Hangar’.

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  10. Ian Walsh, Australia

    There were 5,311 fewer (not less) crimes recorded…reads better

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  11. The Red Postman

    I’m merely repeating what everyone else has said but the point cannot be made too often. This is what you get when staff numbers are slashed to the minimum and “just get the paper out” becomes the mantra.

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  12. SF

    Adrian, i agree with what you say about one person putting it together and how difficult that is.
    But if the reporter or News Editor has only one chance at writing these stories- and making it colourful for the reader – surely they can do it right first time rather than using dull jargon.
    We can blame cuts/staffing etc, but those reams of dull intros and subsequent stories should never have been written that way in the first place.

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  13. old hack

    Okay, while we’re nitpicking, it’s fewer crimes and murders, not less. ‘More or less murders’, I imagine, are manslaughter!

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  14. Fiona

    Rather a pompous sweeping view from Steve Dyson (whoever he may be). Sometimes figures can speak for themselves, there’s not always space for analysis. Real life stories and vox pops take time – limited for today’s local journalists, especially in an election week. Less manpower / space is not their fault. It raised important issues for readers to debate and give their views – surely the role of local papers?
    Before blithely using phrases like ‘lazy journalism’ (I think young local reporters now work harder than most of us, for less pay and security) maybe you should check your own facts – the spelling of Hanger Hill for example.

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  15. Cutting Edge

    More sweeping statements from the person who writes this turgid column and yet, another negative slant on those at the cutting edge.
    The staff on this title work very hard and, to have their work labelled as ‘lazy journalism’ is grossly unfair. I think I can suggest to whom the ‘lazy journalism’ title should be given.

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  16. Roy Challis

    Everyone’s right about lack of resources, etc but…. if someone had the time to do a pointless cutout on the top of a policeman’s helment, couldn’t that time have been used to make an intro a bit more interesting?

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  17. Breakfast

    For once, Dyson has a point. Too often, FoI is becoming the default setting now, even to source information that would be available anyway if only the reporter asked. Reams of statistics without context or explanation do not make for a good story, let alone a front page.

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  18. Jim

    I’m not sure those who are jumping to defend the paper and/or reporters and having a go at Steve Dyson, quite get it. The readers don’t know the whys and wherefores at why the paper comes out so. And you wonder why newspapers are losing readers hand over fist.

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  19. Steerpike

    My worry, as I get longer and longer in the tooth, is that in a world whose attention span, thanks to Twitter and whatnot, now makes a goldfish look like Socrates, young reporters coming up just don’t see what I would have called proper journalism any more and all too often lack the ability to pick the bones out of a pile of data (like a response to an FOI) and find the best angle and hence write the decent intro. Which ties in neatly with understaffing (to which I would add lack of investment in training) and hence the willingness to rely on press releases, which are inexorably redefining what news looks like, especially when you’ve got Local World expressing an almost indecent eagerness to let the fuzz, councils and their ilk put their propaganda on its websites without a hack ever getting near it. Having said all that, a lot of people worked bloody hard to get the FOI Act passed and it ill behoves armchair warriors such as Steve Dyson to dismiss so airily one of the few tools we still possess by which our lords and masters can be held to account just because someone somewhere hasn’t got the time or the knowledge to use it properly.

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