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’.
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.
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.