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Dyson at Large: Social media dramas not always worth page leads

Today’s local reporters spend loads of time on the likes of Facebook and Twitter, regularly trawling for news stories.

This is a logical exercise, what with individuals, communities and even world leaders filling social media with every moment of their lives.

But with fewer desk heads commissioning or even scrutinising the resulting copy before it hits titles’ websites and printed pages, who’s deciding what’s actually worth publishing?

From what I often see, it’s most probably desk-bound reporters themselves, interpreting the mere action of a tweet or post from a contact as the only excuse they need to create an instant story, regardless of its meaning or quality.

Here’s an example from my local weekly newspaper, the Sutton Coldfield Observer, which left me somewhat staggered earlier this month: ‘Drama as shop worker faints serving customer’.

Observer story 1 (2)

To save you struggling to read the entire page seven lead above, let me highlight the main facts:

  • A shop assistant fainted and two 999 calls were made.
  • To be on the safe side, two ambulances and a community first-aider were sent to the scene.
  • The first ambulance to arrive quickly established it was not an emergency, so the second ambulance was cancelled, and the first-aider stood down.
  • Result: the woman was fine, and wasn’t even taken to hospital. Move along please!

This was a minor incident that might have been worth a filler, but because of a tweet from a first-aider, the whole thing was overblown into what ended up as a page lead.

That original tweet from a local first-aider said: “Call to unconscious person in the @scgracechurch 2X @OFFICIALWMAS and @SCCFRs #OnScene pt conscious and of [sic] to A&E for further tests.”

This abbreviated jargon and strange hashtag would have been meaningless to the average reader, and the hospital ‘fact’ it ended with was inaccurate.

Nevertheless, the tweet was carried in full, just one of 14 paragraphs and around 400-words that were devoted to this non-story.

Flicking through the same Observer on 3 February, this wasn’t the only questionable page lead, with an unnamed man who didn’t choke to death after bolting his steak making page 11.

Observer story 2 (2)

The same first aider as the ‘woman fainted’ story appeared to be the source, with this tweet used as the first quote: “Return of spontaneous circulation patient choking on steak goes into Respiratory arrest and then cardiac arrest! #Team999 with@wmasrobmoore.”

This man choking (but not dying) on his steak might well have made a story with quotes and pictures of him recovering, but as an anonymous snapshot was it really good enough for a page lead?

This isn’t a wholesale critical review of the Observer which, in fairness, is a half-decent free weekly with hard-working staff, and one which this blog praised back in June 2010.

But like so many local frees, it’s increasingly suffered from a lack of resource in recent years, not helped by switches in ownership.

The result is a paper staffed and edited from the offices of the paid-for Tamworth Herald some eight miles away, across the Staffordshire county border (Sutton Coldfield is in the West Midlands).

From there, it seems reporters are sometimes remotely picking up social media tips and publishing them regardless of quality.

And that apparent paucity of news desk-checking is – in my opinion – the sad state that many local titles beset by annual staffing cuts find themselves in.

In short, here’s the general order of the day across too many UK local titles: “Not many staff, loads of pages to fill, one of the easiest ways to do it is by trawling social media to find stories. Job done.”

Despite shrinking resources, local papers still have space to be filled, and websites to be updated, and there are, of course, some great stories to be found on social media.

But reporters need to learn that not everything masquerading as news on Twitter, Facebook et al is worth covering, and much of it is, to be kind, trivial.

And whether they’re reading online or in print, readers expect their local titles to know this, and not to feed them non-stories just because they were posted on social media by some over-excited volunteer.

Remember the days when reporters all had physical spikes on their desks for poor press releases that weren’t worth a story? Well, in the modern world, a digital ‘spike’ is sometimes badly needed.

▪ Have you got a recent example of a ‘story’ gleaned from social media that should never have seen the light of day? Please post any links below.

14 comments

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  • February 15, 2017 at 8:23 am
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    The reality is, Steve, the vast majority of reporters are writing almost exclusively for websites now. Stories of this nature are packaged up and pushed to websites double-quick before said reporters move on to the next traffic update, listicle, hygiene rating etc.

    Production teams then pick these items at random out of ‘content systems’ and jam them into whatever space needs filling in the paper. Scarcely a newsdesk or senior journalist is involved in this process anymore because the emphasis is on turning around more copy for websites, and not on crafting strong page leads.

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  • February 15, 2017 at 8:23 am
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    Just doing a bit of newsdesk-checking for you, Steve: I think you meant to reminisce about physical rather than digital spikes in the first part of your last paragraph. Keep up the good work….

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  • February 15, 2017 at 8:45 am
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    Duh! Thanks for the spot Paul Wiltshire … and let that error remain for all to see. You can be my news editor any day!

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  • February 15, 2017 at 10:15 am
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    Really interesting piece. Both cases highlighted would have done well online I’m sure – if people see an ambulance/fire engine etc in the street then there they are curious to know what happened and they want to know instantly. A few pars online would sort that no problem.

    But by the time of publication (4-5 days later seemingly with the near-choke tale) no-one will be looking in the paper to see what had happened. If injuries were sustained then fine, that is newsworthy. But ’emergency services last week did their job and everyone is fine’ is not a story worthy of print when space is precious.

    That is why I want to tear my hair out hearing publishing groups talk about ‘multi-platform’ stories. Some pieces are solely good for web and others solely for print.

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  • February 15, 2017 at 10:51 am
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    the faint story is pitiful for a paper but OK for the web. I guess they were desperate to fill a hole. It happens.

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  • February 15, 2017 at 1:24 pm
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    Hi Steve

    The ‘faint story’ underplays it a little. This woman stopped breathing and was convulsing – read the quotes not the headline. Anyone who stops breathing and needs medical attention IMHO is worthy of a story. Add in to this the fact it happened in a busy shopping area, with an ambulance and a community first responder attending, and people would have wondered what happened – further reasons to cover it.

    The story on the man choking on his steak with his heart stopping – again a snapshot of what the emergency services and the volunteer medic did late at night and a life-threatening incident. Now we’d have liked to speak to his family but unless they came forward, we couldn’t.

    As for this comment: “This man choking (but not dying) on his steak might well have made a story with quotes and pictures of him recovering,” Well we have been informed this man did die from this incident. We found out after the paper went to press. We did the best we could.

    I’ll level with you, ideally we’d go to the coroner’s court and the inquest and get all the details. But this is where resources are THE issue.

    We have two reporters on the title. That’s two reporters to cover the newspaper, website, Facebook, Twitter account, cover news as best we can seven days a week.

    We give it a damn good go.

    If you spoke to me Steve, you’d have got the full picture. But that involves old fashioned reporting – the right of reply!

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  • February 15, 2017 at 4:28 pm
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    The mind boggles.
    Sutton Coldfield is a bustling newsy area and so there are no doubt lots of cracking tales to be told – if this paper had enough resources and staff to go out and get. We’re all doomed, I tell you….
    Nest week “Temperatures were near zero on Tuesday and then there were flakes of snow for ten minutes as our town feared arctic conditions might begin.”
    I’m glad I worked in happier, more rewarding years before retirement.
    ………….V.Meldrew

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  • February 15, 2017 at 4:58 pm
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    Many thanks to all for debating this subject. Some excellent points have been made above which emphasise the main problems:

    1/ Tight resources are such that not enough time, thought and desking is available to ensure that what began for ‘immediate’ web is fit for ‘retrospective’ print.

    2/ In this case, two few reporters are tasked with having to produce too much for very different formats.

    One for publishers to mull over, perhaps?

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  • February 15, 2017 at 5:01 pm
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    Not sure the amount of reporters is the issue. In this case it looks like they just rushed their work more than anything else. More care needed and make sure lead stories are infact lead stories I would say

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  • February 15, 2017 at 9:13 pm
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    Hey Steve, why don’t you ask people to send in examples of really bad stories from barely-rewritten press releases or dull charity self-promotions? Because that’s what a lot of free (and paid for) papers are filled with these days. The examples quoted aren’t the best written stories, but the reporters have done a good job finding something interesting to write about instead of waiting for space-filling rubbish to fall into their laps. I’d rather read about someone fainting than another unimaginative fundraiser climbing Kilimanjaro or a shop celebrating its 7-month “anniversary”. That’s what social media-sourced stories should replace, not serious investigative and human interest journalism.

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  • February 15, 2017 at 10:33 pm
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    Rushed my work!? Are you kidding me ‘Worried journalist’!? What’s rushed about it?

    I don’t decide what goes in the paper and where it goes.

    I write the stories put them on the web, sub them, headline them (several different headlines for web), source photos, publish them, promote them on social media. And file them for the paper.

    The merits of them – I stand by my earlier comment they both are worthy of leads.

    There seems to be a disconnect with the reality of the modern newsroom.

    And Geronimo – tell in Sutton Coldfield what I’m missing!? I’d be fascinated to know these big stories that go untouched in my patch……

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