Inaccurate reporting of the kind that gives rise to defamatory headlines was, at one time, something the victim of libel could at least dismiss as 'tomorrow's chip paper'. Untrue stories would die down and only the keen researcher would be likely to dig them up. Now, however, anything published by a journalist remains out there for good and can be picked up and go viral across the internet. Readers on every continent can see what has been written and have no way of knowing whether or not it represents the facts of the matter. Headlines that reduce complex matters to single phrases can give a completely false impression. For example, two comments from different perspectives can become a 'dispute', an individual's comment can be used to represent a whole group and an unhappy face can be used to portray anger. How can damaged - often undeservedly damaged - reputations be rebuilt? All this can happen almost in the twinkling of an eye. One of the things that contributes to the bullying aspect of media coverage is that those who are unlucky enough to find themselves misrepresented are often too nervous of further adverse publicity to try to put their side of the story or to complain.
How much do you believe of what you read in the press? If you're like me, you probably read an article and think, 'well, there must be a grain of truth somewhere in this.' You possibly trust some companies and newspapers more than others. Yet Nick Davies gives one example of what can happen. In 2005 a five year old boy was reported as having been hanged from a tree. In fact he had not, but the press then printed subsequent articles repeating the story and claiming that, as a result, fear was stalking the estate where he lived. You can image the effect on his family and on community relationships.
In his book Flat Earth News, Chatto and Windus, 2008, Nick Davies draws attention to the moral bankruptcy of parts of the British press. (He's pretty even handed in criticising across the board.) When the book was published, he claimed that, due to changes in the culture in which they work, journalists had too much space to fill and no time to put proper checks in place. With further staffing cuts the situation has undoubtedly deteriorated over the past 4-5 years. At the benign end, reporting can be sloppy with facts like names, dates, ages, times and purposes of projects simply wrong. At the malignant end, journalists resort to snooping, over dependence on anonymous speculative sources to build up stories, and even bugging, as we now know to be the case. In my own experience, a journalist has known the day I moved a computer in my office and the day I moved belongings from temporary accommodation. Being snooped on, especially in private space, is a terrifying experience which corrodes trust and is one of the more pernicious aspects of the kinds of pressure journalists bring to bear on individuals, often for unjustifiable reasons.
Cardiff University** published a report The Quality and Independence of British Journalism; Tracking the Changes over Twenty Years here in which the authors spoke to journalists about the changes in the pressures under which they worked and sampled the level of checking that went on. In the Summary (p.3), they come up with this sobering finding about re-cycled PR stories, 'Only half the stories in our press sample made any visible attempt to contextualise or verify the main source of information in the story and in less than one in five cases was this done meaningfully.' This finding is consonant with my experience. For example, on one occasion 19 different organisations published speculative stories based on one original story; only one journalist contacted me. Four were careful not to repeat anything that was speculative. Many distortions are generated at local level and then creep up the news chain and out across the internet.
Common problems that I have spotted include
- Speculation which may be identified as such in the first round of reporting but which looks like fact when taken up and used again.
- Repetition of speculation or very few facts.
- Misleading headlines.
- Misleading photographs.
- 'X was not available for comment' without evidence that an attempt was made to contact the person named.
- Use of the technique that asks for a comment when the person commenting does not accurately know what they will be represented in the article as commenting on.
- Putting one comment alongside another to produce the appearance of a dispute.
- Intrusion into people's private lives without evidence that this serves the public interest or, sometimes, with good evidence that it does not.
One of the problems in doing anything about all this is that British journalism does not have a great track record when it comes to responding to criticism. It's largely self regulated and gives the impression of fighting hard to maintain this. Kevin Marsh, in the Guardian article quoted above, says 'Too many British newspaper journalists confuse verification with impact, independence with arrogance, the interests of the public with the basest interests of some sectors of the public.' It is very difficult to complain. Complaints have to be made within 2 months to the Press Complaints Commission but, in the first instance, the complainant must contact the editor of the newspaper. At this point it is far from clear whether the complaint is confidential and whether complaining will be prejudicial to any further stories that are written.
In my ministry I have three times witnessed families who have been driven almost to the point of madness by the intervention of journalists who have reported things which turned out to be untrue. In one instance they caused a misunderstanding between family members, in another, a community dispute which then became entrenched and, in a third case, they gave an impression that the family had asked for a public enquiry when they had not. I have sat with individuals who feel that their reputation has been suddenly and undeservedly undermined with no hope of redress. This is surely bullying.
Vicky Beeching has courageously pointed out that the only way to shame those who bully in cyberspace is to get the bullying out into the open by retweeting the messages. Not everyone agrees with this but I think the principle is right. Unless the story of defamation and bullying is told, it becomes an underground evil we all think we have no choice but to accept. We just hope it doesn't touch us and, often, we do nothing to help those it does touch. When reputations were attacked, Jesus acted in many different ways. Sometimes He remained silent, sometimes He reacted with anger (calling the religious leaders 'vipers' (John 8) was not particularly moderate), sometimes, especially in the case of others being under attack, He acted to put right the defamation, to protect, encourage and empower the individual defamed. Speaking about possible solutions to cyberspace bullying, one of the speakers on Woman's Hour today said that we need to teach our children, starting at primary school, to be kind and respectful on the internet. I think we also need to look at courses in journalism to see whether and how journalists learn to distinguish between reporting that countenances limited harm to an individual for the greater public good and the kind that does gratuitous harm to an individual for sheer impact or because the reporting is heavily biased towards one section of a society, community or situation.
See also Regulation of the Media
** Authors - Franklin, Lewis, Modsell, Thomas and Williams, 2006