Fact-checkers were a luxury we’ve never had in UK media. Instead, we relied on journalists applying basic journalistic tools suppotred by the rigour of a sceptical newsdesk, a sceptical bankbench, a sceptical editor and sceptical legal. That was print. Print as gatekeepers of information is flawed as we know but it it is right more times than it is wrong.
As we transition from print to digital, let’s hope we can keep the bean-counters at bay and bring back rigour to online. Sadly, though, I don’t think we will.
And as C P Scott, the Guardian’s greatest editor said in his epic essay: ‘Comment Is Free, The Facts Are Sacred.’
In the old Farringdon Road HQ it was actually inscribed on the reception wall. It was a typographical mish-mash typical of the Naughties but it was of its age and the boldest mission statement you could want at a newspaper.
But sometimes facts – shiny, gleamy, facts, irrefutably true and sure-footed – are simply not enough.
This may be hard for some of you to bear. Armed with trusty swords of truth and so forth, the more wide-eyed of you believe that truth will out. And, indeed, it invariably will – in the end.
But sometimes truth takes its time. And in the time it takes for its effect to be felt, great harm can follow. If the casualties of information wars played out in the media are a few political careers then, meh? It is what it is.
But what if those casualties are babies?
The night I failed every mother in Britain was the night the Daily Mail decided to splash on its latest iteration of the MMR jab story – and for a quick recap on the discredited research linking MMR jab to autism see here – while I was night editing a rival national newspaper.
It was – and still remains – an emotive topic despite the facts, despite there being no link, despite the very best scientific principles at play.
And on the night of the 5th February 2002, fully five years after then questionable research, tomorrow’s papers landed at 10.30pm and plastered over the Mail was:
NEW ALERT OVER MMR JAB
NEW research fuelled controversy over the MMR jab yesterday as fears grew of a large-scale measles outbreak.
Scientists have for the first time established a possible link between the measles virus, autism and a related bowel disorder.
The findings were revealed as clusters of measles, which can be fatal, emerged in London and the North-East.
Public health experts warned that record numbers of parents are shunning the combined measles, mumps and rubella jab.
The proportion of children being vaccinated is well below the critical threshold at which epidemics become a serious risk.
The latest research shows that the measles virus is present in the guts of autistic children who suffer a rare form of bowel disease. The disorder was first identified by Dr Andrew Wakefield, the expert who voiced fears about a link between MMR and autism in 1998….m/f
It went on at full splash copy length. There is nothing inaccurate about this piece,. The facts at the time were in order. The trained eye sees the caveats, the wriggle room, the lawerly distance placed between claims and statements.
But to appreciate the atmosphere into which this editorial grenade was lobbed we have to recall the hysteria already at work.
Jab rates were already down, herd immunity compromised and parts of the UK had reported higher incidences of measles. The Guardian’s Sarah Boseley recaps the actual facts here.
This egregious state of affairs could not go unanswered and I got our health correspondent out of bed. They, too, were inflamed by yet another addition to the panoply of provocative jab stories and had no hesitation in writing a Experts Play Down Fears rebuttal.
I printed our fact-laded response. I gave it due prominence. I put the facts to work. I set my store by them. Surely, people would see their error should they read the facts.
Knocking your door after you’ve died or right-clicking your Facebook feed and hitting Save As…?
One intrudes on private grief but offers the grieving a choice in how content surrounding their loved one is shaped, the other leaves them alone in their moment of despair but can with budget-pleasing economy of effort deliver a motherlode of pictures, contextual content and tributes.
Is it either, both or neither?
Chances are that if you are a tabloid newspaper, it is both. If you are web, the latter.
The debate surrounding the deathknock and the public’s distaste – despite their consumption of its results – of the method is a recurring theme which we’ve discussed on more than one occasion. News editors have their own favourites they deploy when the time comes, and even the broadsheets indulge either by proxy in the form of agencies and freelances.
When they’re feeling particularly gripped they may send a feature writer after the event, but the ugly intent remains the same.
It continues to irk the public but now that distaste has spread to the use of Facebook and the web warriors, too, are finding themselves subjected increasingly to scrutiny of the use of publicly available pictures.
Old school tactics will be fairly familiar to seasoned hacks. The home, the neighbours, the school yearbook, the snapper who took the school yearbook, the sports club wall with its team pics, the local library with local paper wedding pics. All are mined, but most also mean face-to-face engagement with someone who may have had first-hand contact with the deceased.
This, at least, offers opportunity for comment and insight on the person who died but equally warnings on privacy and family detail which helps the editorial team back at base make an informed judgement on publication.
Occasionally, it can get nasty on the doorstep but these are the exception rather than the rule. Most of the boots on the ground pull out when faced with same.
It’s tough work.
The right-click on a public social profile carries with it more potential content. The younger the victim, the more their life is played out online. Privacy settings are neither here nor there and even when they are, any locally embedded hack can move with alarming speed with not even six degrees of separation required before they have an ‘in’ on which they can lean for access.
But is it right that if is public, it can be downloaded? Is today’s demand for constant consumption in itself any reason to purloin moments that were intended to mark private social milestones?
Would you rather your grieving relatives were afforded the chance to supply a favoured image?
If Stephen Lawrence had been murdered today, would the single family handout still have the resonance that they intended? In limiting his image after death they exercised control over his portrayal.
Consider this alternative: You on a bender on a Prague stag night?
Hardly fitting, is it?
Newsenomics would point to the Save As as the most efficient way to achieve the desired outcome
But next time you’re asked to raid Facebook, load up Google Maps instead.
Metrics. Can’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em.
Actually, it’s the latter.
Metrics are showing us a whole new way to appreciate – and measure – the perfectly crafted headline.
Only the moon, and perhaps my expense account at the paper, waxes and wanes more than the trends in headline length.
If you’d picked up The Times during the 18th Century you’d be offered a glittering smorgasbord of headlines and cross-heads disappearing like an on-page fractal as it sought to draw you in.
Add a century or so and the march of the tabloid had distilled it down to just one word: Gotcha! The effective but short-lived first edition headline from the UK’s The Sun splash on the sinking of the General Belgrano during the Falklands War.
When the internet woke up and decided news might be a thing, length became fashionable once again as your reader was no longer just a human being but included the web-crawlers armed with algorithms that loved to see meta matching headlines.
We have discussed this apparent tension between elegance and design and function before here. And the world leader, mailonline, continues, even today, to eschew the clickbait listicle and instead throw the equivalent of verbal flypaper at its headliens to ensnare even the most casual browser.
But the mighty MailOnline almost stands alone as browsers have followed mobiles and into our pockets and handbags. The real estate can no longer afford the sprawling luxury of unlimited words working as a team. Now only a select few dare venture out and smuggle themselves under the gorilla glass of your smartphone for your attention.
The rise of social and the noise that goes with it has led to clickbait – a craft in itself – and the short-form headline is once again queen to its king (which, we are told is content).
But don’t take our word for it.
With big headlines comes big data. And Herbert Liu only had to dip his toe into the thinky waters of medium.com and other social fora to see what pitch returned the best return.
And The Results Will Amaze You!
In his excellent analysis of headline length Liu sorts the wehat from the chaff – and keeps the chaff. Short is the new long and Less is the new More.
Your Headlines Sucked. These Didn’t. Why?A Data-Driven Guide to Contagious Headlines on Medium
It is no coincidence that this is maximising browser real estate and great to see the newspaper art of the tabloid headline making a welcome and brawling return to prominence. It remains an art to engage a reader and the best content can lay unread unless well-signposted.
The same paper which carried this piece decrying a fundamental tool of journalism -speaking to people – carried a death knock on page 2 on the same day as this sensorious piece of hand-wringing.
And, for the record, the freelance who knocked the door of a mother who had lost her child in a terrible accident is a father himself. It isn’t easy, no one likes doing them, but we would be remiss not to.
Well, they say imitation is the greatest form of, well, you know what we mean. And the art of headine writing is beloved in this parish.
So for the HuffPost to slam the Mail – and its mainly MailOnline, so different beast for a different market – for its grabby headlines is a little unfair. Much parodied but rarely bettered, the MailOnline headline is a thing of beauty when executed correctly. Many of their headlines break conventional rules and are the better for it.
All come with inviting hooks or calls to action. Headlines scream READ ME!
Rarely does a video or set of pictures come without a Call To Action headline such as WATCH This Fish Play The Piano. You WILL Be Amazed.
And simple court copy is transformed from dull regional fayre to home page scroll inducing dwell time.
And for every candle-lit dinner that causes cancer and every shampoo that makes you fat, the Mail never loses sight of stories that move or engage people.
A the end of the day, traffic is what is required – and traffic is what they get.
Journalists have always filtered grassroots tips and observations and here, it can be argued, digital expansion and ‘citizen journalism’ actually strengthens the hand of the original gatekeepers as they transition into a digital environment.
Citizen journalism can be partial and non-objective but it has the advantage of being raw intel. It behoves the trained journalist to sift through what is fact, what is comment and what is fiction.
Publish and be damned? You will if you try in Ireland. No constitutional right to free speech and a libel system weighted heavily against the Press. This in a country which shed blood for its independence.
reverseferret appaluds a petition which needs your support and has started life in the dry dusuty comment pages of a broadsheet but by a tabloid, the Irish Daily Mail. And the newspaper appears not be sniping over not being able to reveal the latest lovenest or salacious scandal but for the right for the people of Ireland to discuss openly the pros and cons of gay marriage without fear of Sue, Grabbit &Runne reaching for the quill and ink and demanding a fat cheque.
As the petition says:
”As the recent RTE ‘homophobia’ payout has shown, Ireland’s defamation laws are deeply repressive, muzzling the media and acting as a form of censorship by the rich and powerful. Introducing American defamation laws would guarantee everyone’s right to speak freely on matters of public importance while protecting private citizens.”