What can we learn from the tone and language used by journalists covering the UK disturbances? Where did journalists get it right and where could it have been done better? How can we ensure our coverage accurately informs the public debate – even when under intense pressure?
Getting it so badly wrong
30 years ago, while editing one of my radio reports on the sixth floor at BBC Radio Merseyside in Liverpool, I looked out of the window and noticed a large plume of smoke. My instinct was to drop everything and chase fire engines.
The news editor gave me the keys to the new, brightly painted radio car. I was expected to report live from the scene in the next bulletin. I had 45 minutes to get there, park, raise the transmitter mast, establish a signal and report.
When I arrived at Myrtle Gardens in the Toxteth area of Liverpool the fire had spread through the entire tenement block. Fire crews were attempting to contain the flames as police tried to control a swelling crowd.
The police let me through and I was able to park close to one of the fire engines. I had just enough time to ask a fire officer whether there had been any casualties. “Not that we know of,” he said, “but there are still people in the building.”
To my left I saw people leaving the burning tenement block arms laden with TVs, pots, pans, kettles, boxes, bedding and all sorts of possessions. I thought this was an important line – residents risking all to salvage their valuable positions. What an idiot I turned out to be.
I started to scribble a script ready to go live. I wound down the windows so as to include the sound effects. The studio engineer asked for a few words for audio level.
"You silly bugger, they’re not salvaging, they’re looting"
A policeman had walked up and was leaning through the window. I tested my broadcast levels. “Residents are attempting to salvage what they can...”
The policeman tapped me on the shoulder. "You silly bugger, they’re not salvaging, they’re looting and you need to move."
As he was speaking the top of the hour news jingle played, the news presenter back in the studio read the one line intro to my report, and I was live.
Retaining objectivity and fact checking under pressure
I can’t remember what I said in that report, but I do remember the radio car being attacked with sticks, and the police fighting off a group of lads as I tried to explain to the BBC Radio Merseyside audience what was happening. Fat chance, I didn't have a clue.
And I have no idea what language I used, but it’s highly unlikely it would have been objective or accurate. I would have tried to describe what I saw, but I hadn’t had time to talk to anyone involved, apart from asking a fire fighter about casualties. I had absolutely no chance of figuring out the context for what I was seeing.
Was the police officer correct in describing those leaving the building with items as looters?
I could see what was happening, but I didn't know why it was happening, who was taking part, or what was motivating them
I don't know, I could see what was happening, but I didn't know why it was happening, who was taking part, or what was motivating them.
I was a young reporter having just joined BBC local radio from newspapers. I was excited, frightened and confused.
And I had just become the first BBC journalist to report live from what was to become known as the Toxteth riots of 1981.
So I can fully understand why some reporting from the scene on the first night of the London disturbances used language such as “mindless violence”, and “violent mob”, but watching the reports made me wonder what we have learnt in the 30 years since the first major inner city unrest.
How can we do better? Probably by taking time to figure out what journalists should and should not do in such circumstances. My rule, from that day on, was to only report verified, sourced and attributed facts – never my opinion, my personal social perspective, or my emotions - certainly not my assumptions.
Any thoughts? Has anyone got examples of the good and the not so good in the recent coverage? If so, please add them to the comment box below or on our Facebook page.
The author of this piece, David Brewer, is a journalist and media strategy consultant who set up and runs Media Helping Media. He delivers journalism training and media consultancy services worldwide via Media Ideas. He also runs a media mentoring service.