Accept nothing at face value

I cannot have been the only journalist to wince at Press Gazette’s story of several regional papers being duped by a press release.

A guy called Roger Stachis contacted many papers to gain publicity for his website, claiming he was from their local area.

Unfortunately many papers took this at face value and acres of free publicity duly appeared up and down the land.

It was only when the Evening Advertiser in Swindon did some basic fact checking that they discovered he was not originally from their patch – and by using the internet realised he was conning other papers using the same “local boy made good” line.

So well done to the Advertiser, but how many other papers can say handonheart that they check every press release sent into them which then appears as a bit of grouting on an overnight page? I run a course for regional papers on investigative journalism. Many of the delegates start off by saying that all journalism should be investigative and that they use those tools every day in their jobs.

Unfortunately the tale of Roger Stachis just confirms what I already knew: they don’t.

Investigating issues on behalf of readers should be instrumental to every good regional paper. These can range from quick consumer probes to long-running and hard-hitting exposures into the wrongdoings of people in public office.

But it is difficult to get to the latter stage, which can take hours of painstaking work and attention to detail, if you are an organisation which does not even check the most basic of facts on a press release.

Heavy-duty investigations into wrongdoings are not easy, particularly if your paper has no history of doing them.

The Lincolnshire Echo is a case in point. This is a Northcliffe evening paper covering a fairly quiet and pretty part of the world – definitely not a hard-hitting metropolitan paper with a large staff and reputation for turning people over.

But when editor Mike Sassi was presented with a succession of fairly mundane but slightly iffy issues relating to the county council leader Jim Speechley, he decided to probe.

Sassi is honest enough to say he did not really know what he was embarking on, and the paper certainly did not have a reputation for ruffling feathers.

But he has a reputation in the industry for having been one of the best and most enthusiastic news editors and this gave him the impetus not to let it lie.

He employed a specialist reporter, Sharon Edwards, specifically to look at the issue, and the two of them came under masses of pressure from members of the powerful county set.

As the investigation involved things like the Standards Board for England, auditors, and the A1073 Crowland bypass, Sassi states: “The biggest problem we faced was trying to make such a superficially dry, dull, boring story interesting to our readers.”

But they succeeded and, more importantly, kept going when it would have been easy to lose their nerve.

To cut a long story short, with Sassi acknowledging that the very first angle was broken by the BBC, Speechley was jailed for 18 months in April.

Inspector Dick Holmes of Lincolnshire police pointed out: “This case serves to show that individuals who reach elevated positions within society are still answerable to the law and not above it.”

He just about sums it up, but in this case Speechley would not have been answerable to the law if the Echo had not chosen to spend many hours delving into it.

If journalists cannot even be bothered to check out PR puffs, which give welcome free publicity to moneymaking ventures, how likely are they to ensure that people in public office are not abusing their position? Ispent 10 days in America in the past month and can confirm that the three issues which were top of the media’s list then were the abuse photos from Iraq, the last episode of TV sitcom Friends and low-carb diets.

These managed to dominate, in order, the news agenda, the feature agenda and the lifestyle agenda.

For the first time since the war, many US regional papers up and down the country were using their comment pieces to question the war.

It would have made very uncomfortable reading for the Bush administration, who are used to a more supportive press on foreign affairs.

Unlike over here, where Blair and co. are used to a daily battering from national papers on a host of issues, and an occasional slap from regionals where appropriate, US hacks often appear to be part of the government machine.

This is not helped when the New York Times feels sufficiently embarrassed to apologise to readers, as it did last week, for being duped on the whole weapons of mass destruction issue in those crucial months leading up to the war.

However, while many British papers were rightly sceptical over The Mirror’s abuse pictures, they would never question their right to publish them if they had been authentic.

But in the States rival media organisations take each other to task for their lack of patriotism.

Take the spat between rival anchormen Chris Wallace at Fox News Sunday and Ted Koppel at ABC News while I was there.

Koppel had read out the names of the 720 US soldiers killed in Iraq in a viewersyou would be0used to seeing addressed, least of all in this way.

But his former colleague Wallace hit back immediately, saying it smacked of a ratings stunt and political statement. “If you want to pay tribute to the troops, talk about what they fought and died for – not just that they died. It should be more than a telephone directory,” he said.

He then planned a segment in his Sunday programme to show US accomplishments in Iraq which presumably would not be a political statement.

In fact he was right to mention ratings.

Preliminary figures showed that Nightline’s audience rose 22 per cent week-on-week despite being pulled in seven markets by station owner Sinclair Broadcasting which took issue with the piece. No political statement by them either, then. 

Newsweek had a comprehensive special report on the Iraq prison abuse scandal (as it was tagged on the front) and Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s role.

But it was actually the full-page colour ad on page 21 which really caught my eye.

If you believe that we follow behind America in many areas of the media, this should have advertising directors over here rubbing their hands with glee.

Imagine the next ad department call card for the annual spring weddings supplement.

Florists, check. Bridal wear, check. Limos, check. Venues, check. Botox clinics, check.

I’m not sure whether the ad was targeting the bride (as that special gift from the proud parents to ensure she really does look her best on the big day) or her mother (probably both) but I wait with interest to see these appearing in a local paper soon.

Alison Hastings is a media consultant and trainer and former editor of the Evening Chronicle, Newcastle. E-mail her at ajh@alisonhastings.demon.co.uk. She’ll be back in four weeks.

Next week: Janice Turner

by Alison Hastings

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