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Local press criticised over 2011 riots coverage

A group of academics has criticised local press coverage of last year’s summer riots, claiming it relied too much on notions of “them and us.”

In a report published this week, the Citizen Journalism Educational Trust said there were “few examples of good practice” in local newspaper coverage of the disturbances which broke out a year ago this week.

The report, written by Leicester-based sociology lecturer Dr Leah Bassel, follows on from a conference on Media and the Riots organised by the Trust last November.

It is likely to provide controversial reading for local newspapers in communities directly affected by the riots, many of whom have won industry awards for their work.

The report highlights a presentation at the November conference by Sarah Niblock, professor of journalism at Brunel University, West London.

It said she had found there was “too much emphasis on law and order, driven by too much reliance on official sources and binary notions of good versus bad and us versus them.”

Prof Niblock, said the report, had identified a “cultural sea change that has occurred when new financial priorities made local journalism remote from its readers and which becomes a source of reactive rather than proactive reporting.

“Instead, the status and watchdog role of local journalism needs to be rejuvenated, as a distinct sector with its own values where journalists stay and prosper, living and breathing their patch.”

In a preface to the report, media pundit and City University journalism professor also raises the issue of race in coverage of riots stories.

Speaking about national newspapers and broadcasters, he says:  “There is an absence of black editorial executives taking the key decisions about what is published and broadcast. The situation is little better on regional and local newspapers.

However although the report says there were “few examples of good practice in local newspaper coverage of August 2011,” it also highlights the importance of defending and promoting what it called “sound local journalism.”

“While local journalism cannot resolve all the problems identified with media coverage of events of August 2011, longstanding relationships of journalists with communities can go a long way to more balance and constructive coverage.

“Strong local journalism can provide accurate and sensitive coverage that acts as a counterweight to national spin that paints all events with the same brush, though they were in fact diverse events with their own causes and histories.

It calls on journalism employers to set up “workshops” where members of affected communities can “peer review” coverage of sensitive issues and provide journalists with feedback.

25 comments

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  • August 8, 2012 at 8:39 am
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    Another loony left report by someone who has failed to recognise the actions of these thugs and thieves as purely criminal.
    The facts are the vast majority of communities were appalled by the criminal actions of this minority. And papers should – and did – reflect that.
    I doubt the authors have ever worked a busy newsroom with dwindling staff and resources at a push.
    The argument of a lack of black editorial executives is laughable – given that section of the community represents barely 5% of the total population and therefore wouldn’t make up any large base within the industry to warrant any higher percentage.
    Editorial positions are made on ability – not on race or colour.
    And crime is crime, whatever colour you are.

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  • August 8, 2012 at 9:00 am
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    “too much reliance on official sources and binary notions of good versus bad and us versus them.”

    In plain English, the reporting reflected the fact that the people throwing bricks at the police and setting fire to furniture warehouses were criminals, not freedom fighters.

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  • August 8, 2012 at 9:39 am
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    don’t you just love academics?
    reader panels – now there’s an (un)original idea
    best laugh of the day so far…………

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  • August 8, 2012 at 9:55 am
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    Funnily enough, the only people I heard defending the rioters in the days following were white, middle-class academic types. Not your typical local newspaper reader.

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  • August 8, 2012 at 9:58 am
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    “cultural sea change that has occurred when new financial priorities made local journalism remote from its readers and which becomes a source of reactive rather than proactive reporting.”

    She’s right there, though.

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  • August 8, 2012 at 10:23 am
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    What the hell – there’s a page lead come out of it!

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  • August 8, 2012 at 10:45 am
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    Yeah blame the press not the little scrotes who went looting and pillaging.
    Someone, somewhere, someday might actually take responsibilty for their own actions instead of layin the blame elsewhere.
    Nonsense as per usual.

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  • August 8, 2012 at 11:14 am
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    Hope we didn’t pay for that report! They should get a proper job! They should be focusing on Twitter and Facebook – the Wild West!

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  • August 8, 2012 at 11:24 am
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    I’m still convinced 24-hour TV news channels were a fundamental reason the riots escalated as they did.

    It was a very quiet time of the year and at least one such channel had a camera exclusively pointed at the main road in Tottenham early one morning as the trouble started.

    This channel was broadcasting a continuous live feed from the camera for hours even though there was little to see apart from groups of people hanging about, obviously aware they were on television.

    I’m convinced this aimless coverage eventually encouraged idiots to realise they too could get on television elsewhere in the country by throwing a few bricks and looting a few shops. It just snowballed from there.

    As Private Eye later pointed out, there had been earlier disturbances around the same area of London about five months earlier but had not got the saturation coverage from the 24-hour channels. There were no widespread riots then.

    This is what you get when TV news channels focus endlessly on one event, no matter how small, as they haven’t bothered to go out to find other news to get them through summer.

    Rather than criticise local papers, these academics should be fairer and praise these journals for their brave coverage, especially as staff had to go into the field.

    I’d love to see academics ‘writing a first draft of history’ with a notepad and pen in the field during a riot.

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  • August 8, 2012 at 12:34 pm
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    The journalism and other academics are, in fact, so remote from what goes into writing and editing a local newspaper that they have little feel for the real world of local newspaper reporting.
    In truth, they wouldn’t have a clue on how to report riots and criminality other than to profess their empathy with the poor, misunderstood rampagers.

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  • August 8, 2012 at 12:45 pm
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    This report sounds typical of the woolly thinking that has pervaded over the past 50 years in Britain and allowed the culture for rioting and lawlessness to take hold in the first place.

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  • August 8, 2012 at 1:42 pm
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    The point about journalists falling into the trap of seeking information from official sources and being led by the nose by those in positions of power and influence is perfectly valid. Everyone from Bernstein to Davies to Pilger has spoken about it.

    During the riots, a lot of irresponsible people engaged in a lot of criminal activity. But a lot of police officers engaged in criminal activity as well. That’s what provoked the riots in the first place. It was proven months after the riots finished that Duggan had in fact been unarmed when police killed him. The riots began, let us not forget, when a teenaged girl was set upon by police officers at a peaceful vigil for Duggan.

    During the riots, social media showed us a whole side to the riots which the mainstream press did not – namely, a steady stream of videos which showed police engaging in what can only be described as unprovoked attacks on members of the public. Among the more shocking ones I witnessed were a video of a policeman unprovokedly hitting a cyclist with his baton and sending him sprawling onto the carriageway, and a policeman suddenly attacking a young man walking down the street hand-in-hand with his girlfriend, beating him with a baton until a colleague dragged him away.

    These stories were scarcely told by the press, if at all. In light of that, I can’t see how there is any justifiable criticism of this particular point Niblock makes in the report. The media, by and large, ran the voice of authority and intentionally ignored all evidence of bad practice by the police.

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  • August 8, 2012 at 2:47 pm
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    Most of the remarks on here – and they are remarks and personal insults rather than adding anything to this important debate – are sadly illustrative of how knee jerk and out-of-touch some in the media can still be. I work in local journalism and witness this reactionary blinkered attitude daily. Did we really do a perfect job of serving our readerships during the riots and delving into all aspects of the story? Or did we just use it as an opportunity to self-aggrandise? It’s no surprise readers are bailing out in their droves when editors and proprietors seem to despise and belittle them so much. Check your facts, open your minds and read the report instead of making embittered, ill-informed and reductive attacks.

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  • August 8, 2012 at 3:05 pm
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    “While local journalism cannot resolve all the problems identified with media coverage of events of August 2011, longstanding relationships of journalists with communities can go a long way to more balance and constructive coverage.”

    Not sure that when the fires were burning and windows being smashed that when journos thumbed through their contacts books they found, under B, ‘Bloke who will, some time in the future, break into Footlocker’.

    Reporters report. Big event happens, big event is covered, reaction is gathered.

    As for the relying on official sources/law and order tripe – surely it was a law and order story.

    “binary (use that in an intro at your peril) notions of good versus bad and us versus them” – sums it all up. bollocks.

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  • August 8, 2012 at 3:13 pm
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    A lot of local newspaper readers wanted to know why the birch wasn’t brought back for all those who thought they’d kick in the Footlocker windows for a pair of trainers, or Currys for a new telly.
    As for the police, readers – and telly viewers – looked on gob-smacked as the police appeared overwhelmed or even legging it at times, leaving frightened non-criminal residents to their own devices. That was the main criticism of police.
    This was happening often many miles away from Tottenham, eg Manchester.

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  • August 8, 2012 at 3:20 pm
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    Yeah, we all know what the police are capable of CTHo.

    The immediate aftermath and subsequent prolonged cover-up following the Hillsborough Disaster has taught us that.
    But it wasn’t the regional press that sucked up all the garbage the police were spouting.

    It was Fleet Street’s finest.

    And the same is largely true about last summer’s riots outside of London.

    We were not given to placing “too much reliance on official sources” as Professor Niblock sniffily alleges.

    Local reporters and snappers were out on the streets night after night seeing it for themselves; the cars set alight, the shop windows bricked and the looters filling their boots.

    These were very familiar streets to us being as they were in the provincial towns where we actually live, believe it or not.

    And had she been chased by a mob of rioting hoodies rampaging down a dimly-lit police-free avenue, I can assure the good professor that hearing a lofty academic moaning about “binary notions of good versus bad and us versus them” would have had her falling off her chair racked with hollow laughter.

    As it just has with me.

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  • August 8, 2012 at 3:26 pm
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    Having spent the entire duration of the riots liveblogging every single brick thrown (or so it felt), I vehemently disagree with the above comment. What I saw on social media, particularly Twitter and Facebook, was prima facie evidence of criminality. A lot of very scared people were sharing pictures and videos of what was happening on their doorsteps, begging for more information. I can’t actually recall seeing any substantiated pictures or videos of police violence. Perhaps you would care to show us a few? I mean, if police abuse was as rampant as you suggest, surely there’d have been numerous Guardian splashes on the topic?

    No? Thought so. Do keep us informed if any of your “evidence” ever surfaces.

    As for “review panels” – compare and contrast that idea with “copy approval.”

    And black editorial executives? We faced the largest explosion in violent criminality on the streets, and your concern is the skin colour of the editors. Nuff said.

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  • August 9, 2012 at 10:16 am
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    The police stood by and watched as the first riot began and so looters filled their boots – and others rushed to join the feeding and wrecking frenzy.
    The cameras rolled and clicked and the nationwide copycat free-for-all exploded into life.
    This is my simple analysis of what happened. I didn’t realise it was anything more complicated than that – and partly my fault!
    You live and learn…

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  • August 9, 2012 at 11:16 am
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    I can see why some correspondents are feeling so defensive – I’ve been pitched as the typical ‘lofty white middle class professor’ who hasn’t got a clue about real-world journalism having a bit of an ill-informed pop. Well if they read this positive report (in which I actually play a minor role) and heard what I had to say on the day, they’d know I was invited to speak as former local, regional and national journalist and as an NCTJ trainer who actively defends and promotes local journalism, not least against the cutbacks wrought by the companies that own their last-remaining titles. I went out into Wood Green all night on the first night of the riots, and saw the rioting and looting with my own eyes. I spoke to loads of people in Tottenham over the next few days and I heard amazing stories from people keen to tell their tale but with no outlet and a sense that the local media had no part to play in their lives. I monitored what colleagues, friends and former students were doing up and down the country with awe and respect. No-one’s denying the widespread criminality. Nor was anyone in that conference knocking the professionalism of the individual journalists. Quite the opposite in fact. They took massive risks. What is at the heart of the issue is the lack of time and resources local journalists have at their disposal to do their best for their communities 365 days a year, not only when big stories break.Surely it’s good to reflect on these things and debate them at a time when readership figures and trust in journalists are at a low point, It was great that the conference brought together readers, journalists and people from the communities worst-affected. All agreed the local media have a powerful and positive role to play in their areas and should be supported in doing so.

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  • August 10, 2012 at 9:29 am
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    I actually bought and read this report. I want my money back.
    This report tries to allude to some sort of Robin Hood style honour in the looters’ actions but the media failed to report it.
    It states the voice of the rioters was not heard. Despite Niblock’s dubious comments above, we have found that most involved in the riots are unsurprsingly reluctant to speak out and those that do are utterly ashamed by their actions.
    I will be interested to read Niblock’s report of her night in Wood Green on this site shortly.
    It also blames the Tottenham footage of rioters looting with impunity as the reason why more riots occurred but this appears to be it’s only evidence of ‘mainstream’ media blame.
    The report calls for more citizen journalism to accurately reflect events even though on the nights it was citizen ‘journalism’ on twitter BBM and facebook that was responsible for the vast majority of misinformation and fuelling of the riots.
    I note the report is created in conjunction with a citizen journalism website. No agendas there then.
    I also am sad but not surprsied to see the increasingly ludicrous NUJ president Delong slating newspapers for printing pictures of the looters and rioters provided by police and accusing papers of being mouthpieces of the state.
    Lots of talk and hot air in this report about how we should do our jobs by people who no longer do it any more.

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  • August 10, 2012 at 9:33 am
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    As a footnote I would like to say that the local papers in the main did a fantastic job of covering the riots and the aftermath and continue to do so.
    One newspaper prasied in this report for its coverage was *shock* The Guardian.
    It’s a shame the report doesn’t credit all the local papers whose reportage was ripped off by that bastion of truth and honesty when it put together it’s own ‘on the scene’ reports.

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  • August 10, 2012 at 9:41 am
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    Gaz – “I mean, if police abuse was as rampant as you suggest, surely there’d have been numerous Guardian splashes on the topic? No? Thought so. Do keep us informed if any of your “evidence” ever surfaces.”

    As I stated in my initial reply, I saw the videos myself. They were uploaded to YouTube and shared on sites like Facebook. I didn’t catalogue them in a Word document on my desktop in case a right wing loon on HTFP started demanding evidence that a year ago I watched some videos on YouTube.

    I saw what I saw. If the videos have since disappeared, that really only serves to reinforce my point about propaganda.

    It would hardly be out of character for the police to behave in the way I described. You evidently missed the Panorama special on police activity during the G8 protests, in which a lot of officers removed their ID numbers so they could anonymously beat up protestors. How about the student protests, where police were filmed tipping a man with MS out of his wheelchair, then attempted to defend themselves by saying he was the ‘ringleader’ of a militant gang. Still no reason to tip him out of his wheelchair, is it?

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  • August 13, 2012 at 12:03 pm
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    I am the author of this report. I am writing in response to criticisms that have been made in this discussion of Professor Sarah Niblock’s quotes in the report.

    This article does not represent the content of the report in which Professor Niblock staunchly defends local journalism. For those who have not read the report, Professor Niblock specifically qualifies her remarks as ‘“not any kind of attack on the professionalism of journalists” but rather identified “a cultural sea change that has occurred when new financial priorities made local journalism remote from its readers”.

    Furthermore, the report calls for supporting as well as challenging journalists and insists on the constraints journalists face in a difficult economic climate. It was written with the help and input of working journalists.

    There are many points this report raises that are grounds for discussion and debate. This should focus on what was actually written and said and certainly not personal characteristics (real or imagined) of authors or conference participants. The conference that the report documents was a unique opportunity for journalists, members of riot-affected communities and the general public to come together. The report shows that participants did not just criticize but also recognized what was done well and that they were keen to propose constructive solutions.

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