Radio journalists have “a duty of care” to act responsibly when a major story breaks and not be tempted to follow the lead of rolling TV news without confirmation, a panel of senior journalists has agreed.
The group head of news at GMG’s Real Radio network, James Rea, and Radio 1 Newsbeat editor Rod McKenzie were among the guests at a radio news debate at the Radio Festival in Cambridge, chaired by Channel 4 News presenter Jon Snow.
The session presented a hypothetical situation in which a full passenger plane exploded at Heathrow Airport, killing 100 people. The journalists were asked how they react as the story developed, from a vague snap on PA to a full confirmation from the ambulance service.
Rea said radio needed to exercise caution before following up story leads from channels such as Sky News.
“We had a very irate policeman on air last week when we broadcast news about an explosion and some suspicious containers at Hammersmith bus depot,” he said.
“It turned out to be a delivery of fire extinguishers.”
But Rea said that with 24-hour rolling news channels on television and access to the internet, radio newsrooms were under increasing pressure to get the story quickly – but accurately.
“This is a multiplatform world and if we are not saying it someone else will,” Rea said.
“Having experienced the attack in Glasgow, there’s a natural instinct to [rush and] get out there.”
Heather Kane was overseeing the news output on Real Radio in Scotland when a car filled with explosives crashed into Glasgow International Airport. She said so-called “citizen journalism” in the form of listener phone calls and texts had alerted the station to the story, and a reporter was on the scene within 40 minutes.
“We had numerous calls and the alarm bells started to ring. The listeners are much more tech-savvy these days – they texted us photos of what was happening,” she said.
Kane said it was important that local radio stations did not take eyewitness callers live to air, but recorded the calls instead, to avoid broadcasting unfounded speculation and creating hysteria.
“Obviously you wouldn’t want to take callers live to air who don’t have the facts. It’s very much taking the info and trying to piece it together without creating hysteria. We’ve got a lot of responsibility on our hands,” she said.
Matt Schofield, the head of news at GCap’s London stations, which include Capital FM, XFM and Choice FM, said switching a music radio station into rolling news mode was “a no-brainer” when a major story broke in the station’s patch.
Talking about how GCap dealt with the 7 July bombings in London by dropping music and becoming all-speech, Schofield said: “It’s not something that we just decided – it was in our plan. As a heritage radio station for London, our listeners would have expected no less of us. It was a no-brainer really.”
The editor of BBC Radio 1’s Newsbeat, Rod McKenzie, said the influx of text messages and pictures from listeners was helping radio journalists report quickly from breaking stories that are logistically difficult to reach.
“We have to tell the truth and report what we know. Our duty of care to the listener is to give as much accurate info as possible,” he said. “There are logistical difficulties with us getting reporters out. The content is now coming in a much more exciting, deliverable way.”