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NCE Autumn 2002: Examiners' report – Newspaper Practice

Newspaper Practice
– 236 candidates; 108 passed – 46 per cent

A pass rate of 46 per cent for candidates sitting this paper is going to be a surprise to most markers. It is a figure inflated by surplus marks from other sections of the examination which enabled many borderline candidates to average a 60 per cent achievement overall and thus gain their National Certificate. Answers to questions were in many cases, to say the least, disappointing.

Although question one was tough, the alternative was relatively simple if candidates knew their rights and the answers to commonly posed challenges to our right to report. Several candidates scored badly in this ‘law’ section but there were also some good answers here accompanied by poor responses to the challenges in the general section.

Of course there were the usual crop of desperate guesses such as quoting the ‘1996 Act of Justification’, the ‘Reynolds defence of public duty’ and referring to ‘the Office for the Supervisor of Solicitors’ but it was some of the answers to general questions that drove markers towards despair. There must be something wrong when a candidate says he would ask a retired farmer ‘what he used to do for a living’ or in another case suggests illustrating his story with a pix of a man with the dead cousin he’s never met.

Please to God these can’t be the responses they would make in their offices if faced with these scenarios. So what is going wrong? Is it purely examination nerves as many disappointed editors would have us believe? Are the conditions under which the examination is undertaken to blame?

Can we do anything to put candidates more at their ease while retaining the standards that were endorsed only a year ago by editors at a series of meetings organised by the NCTJ under the chairmanship of Bob Satchwell, director of the Society of Editors?

Currently the Newspaper Practice paper is sat at the end of the day – a long anxiety provoking day when all the candidates are tired and made more nervous by the interminable enforced and unavoidable waiting around due to the one-to-one interview. And this is without the problems that occasionally crop up such as those on this occasion at Edge Hill!Would it be a fair assumption to say that, rightly or wrongly, the NP paper is the most feared by candidates? No diminution of other sections of the test is intended when it is suggested that it is perhaps the section where they have to think the hardest. (I fully appreciate that in the other exams there are many candidates who blatantly display a lack of experience and ability to cope with what should be basic news gathering and writing skills.) Is it fair that the NP paper should be taken when they are at their lowest ebb? Would it improve their responses if we were to arrange the timetable so that this was the first examination of the day when they, hopefully, might be most alert and at their brightest? It’s a proposal from Darlington to be discussed at the next Journalism Board meeting.

All the questions in this paper were based on genuine scenarios faced by reporting staff of editor members of the Journalism Board.

Question one called for detail of how candidates would follow up serious allegations made to them in a pub and which were denied by the individual accused. Answers generally were disappointing with far too many candidates thinking that this was a case where they could proceed safely under the protection of the Reynolds defence. If only that defence was as easy and wide as most of them thought. Best marks went to those who made realistic efforts to stand-up the allegations by carefully approaching possible witnesses to the incidents alleged, getting corroborative evidence that could be used to support a plea of justification, suggesting affidavits (if editor willing to pay) and seeking out any union official who might call a press conference to discuss the safety of his members. Several candidates thought they could get the chief executive of the company involved to hold a press conference – to give the media qualified privilege to report damaging allegations against his manager following an inquiry which the CE said had found no evidence of malpractice? Others said that they would introduce the words ‘without prejudice’ into their conversation with the chief executive. Several explained that this would protect them if they slandered the manager while talking to his boss! And, of course, it would still be possible to quote the Chief Exec!

Question two basically turned on whether candidates could recognise the statutory definition of public meeting. While most recognised that they would enjoy qualified privilege, far too many failed to recognise the protection if afforded and went on to say that they would not repeat the names of alleged drug takers among the rugby club players because that was defamatory! Most who chose this question were correct in ridiculing the club captain’s claim that the reporter was bound by a duty of confidence not to report what he’d heard and that he couldn’t be quoted because it would be a breach of oral copyright. Several, however, were totally wrong in saying that there was no such thing as oral copyright and need to look up S58 of the Copyright, Patents and Designs Act 1988. Several failed to make clear that they would report to their editor/news editor an attempt by a solicitor to stop publication of the story.

Question three was based on the website that has featured on the Oprah Winfrey and Kilroy Silk TV shows. How would they tackle a tip from a neighbour that the oldest member of a computer literacy class he was attending had discovered he was to receive $200,000 from an American cousin he had never met and who died some years previously. The man, a retired farmer, had been searching the net for a loan to take his wife on a special golden wedding trip when he had been distracted into the above website. Responses to this scenario were mixed but most showed awareness of the danger of hoaxes on the web and they were prepared to check out the site. Not enough, however, showed an awareness of the vulnerability of elderly persons to confidence tricksters who might seek to take advantage of such persons after reading of their good fortune.

Question four asked candidates how they would deal with a tearful young woman who came into their office complaining that the local A&E unit had kept her grandmother for two days in a corridor on a stretcher trolley because of a shortage of beds on the wards. The old lady, who had fallen down stairs in sheltered accommodation, was still on a trolley. Top marks here went to those candidates who showed both a compassionate concern and recognised the need for a speedy response to get a good emotive story. It cried out for the young woman to be talked into accompanying the reporter to the hospital and agreeing to talk ‘grandma’ into allowing her pix to be taken to draw attention to the scandal. If the facts checked out, this was an obvious public interest exception to the Code of Practice rules of news gathering. Few candidates saw this exception and far too many not only called the hospital by phone as a first reaction but a large number appeared from their answers to be prepared to ignore the granddaughter until they had first called the hospital, CHC, Age Concern, Help the Aged, MPs, NHS and hospital trust chairmen. A sense of urgency about the way they attempted to confirm this young woman’s account was all too often absent from answers.

Question five candidates were told that their newspaper had received several letters of complaint about litter on he streets in the town centre and on verges and in hedgerows on the outskirts. Their editor had decided it was a time for action, perhaps running a campaign, so they were required to write a scene-setting feature full of ideas. The local authority had told them: “It’s not our fault” and claimed that in real terms spending on street cleansing was up 25 per cent on five years ago. How would they progr
ess the story? Candidates who did well here were those that checked out the council’s claim by looking at extracts of accounts and compared spending on this topic, who made efforts to challenge the council on just whose fault it was and to explain where this extra money was being spent. Candidates were rewarded for suggesting they would investigate the type of litter with a view to identifying its source, for checking with the police and magistrates courts the number of prosecutions for discarding litter on the streets, and for coming up with ideas for running a campaign, possibly in partnership with other sponsors.

Find out who passed their exams

  • Examiners’ report: News interview
  • Examiners’ report: Speech

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