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Ex-editor shares concerns about impact of PR moves on pandemic coverage

Mike Sassi (2)A former regional daily editor has raised concerns about the impact local journalists moving into public relations has had on coverage of the coronavirus pandemic.

Mike Sassi has warned the trend of reporters moving into PR while still “in their prime” has led to instances of the crisis being reported from the perspective of police forces and other public bodies.

Mike, pictured, edited the Lincolnshire Echo, Stoke-on-Trent daily The Sentinel and, most recently, the Nottingham Post until December 2019.

He discussed the subject of local journalism in the pandemic in a podcast interview with Rachael Jolley, visiting fellow in journalism at the University of Sheffield.

Discussing how the crisis had been covered by the regional press, Mike said: “There’s been a fundamental change in that there are, that’s an accepted fact, fewer journalists on the ground able to do this, certainly fewer independent journalists – and I don’t think we can underestimate this.

“The people who used to do the job, the people who were junior or trainee reporters and who learned their trade and then would traditionally go and become a crime reporter or a health reporter, and then perhaps a news editor and then an assistant editor, well, once they get to trainee level and then they’re qualified, the money runs out.

“So therefore to get a salary which allows them to buy a house or move into a decent house with a higher rent, they have to go and move into public relations or to marketing.

“And often that will mean that they go into public relations or marketing with the police force or the fire service, or one of the hospitals, or one of the councils who still have more resource to put into public relations and marketing.

“But now at the age of 30, 32, when they are coming into their prime, they are writing the stories for the police force or for the council, with everything that entails, from a certain angle – and that is just an accepted as fact, as a view of the world.

“But remember it started off as the police force’s view of the world or the chief constable’s view of the world, rather than having any independent checks or balances within there, because that kind of footwork is no longer possible because of resource and because it’s accentuated by the Covid situation.”

Mike went on to cite the example of coverage of people who were given on the spot fines for having parties that broke coronavirus restrictions.

He added: “I completely get the fact that the police have a job to do and completely get the fact that there is no excuse for the kind of parties that were going on there, but the police turned up at houses in Nottingham and gave £10,000 fines to individuals who they believe that broken the law.

“There were no trials, no court cases or anything of that nature, just that’s the way it is. And then the stories that were published in all the media the following day were all written by the police force because that’s the way the operation works.

“I’m not suggesting anything untoward or that there was necessarily anything wrong in there, but that’s a very one-sided system I’d suggest.

“There isn’t a conspiracy of silence, but it isn’t spoken of much because everybody in my position knows 1,001 people who are desperately trying to keep the flag flying, who are desperately trying to maintain the credibility of the publication for which they work and doing a very good job.

“But it’s an absolute fact that 10 years ago, there were more than a hundred journalists working for some of the publications which I edited. There are now less than 20, sometimes in some cases a dozen. So you have 90pc less opportunity to write the right stories.”

The podcast can be found here.

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