A question of ethics

Imagine this. You're a newspaper editor and a major international incident is unfolding. Sketchy details start to emerge about people involved in the incident, but they're very sketchy and far from being confirmed. Reporting the details could cause problems with a demonised section of society at home, but if they're true the details are quite shocking. How do you break these sketchy, unconfirmed and unclearly sourced possibilities to your redaership? What's the ethical way to do it?

Here's how some of our national newspaper editors answered the first question yesterday on their front pages.

The Independent:

Emphasise that the police are probing 'claims'. Make no statement about what the British connection might be, since details are sketchy.

The Telegraph:

Ask whether gunmen are British rather than make a bold statement in the headline - but say that British born people are among those arrested in a subheading.

The Sun:

Make a bold statement about the strongest claims. Never mind the uncertainty. 2 gunmen are British.

The Mirror:

Chuck in a few extra less strong claims. Seven are British now.

The Express and the Star:

Let's just make it look like they're all British! Fuck 'em, they're only Muslims probably, and our readers don't like Muslims. Ethics? What's that mean then? Are you some sort of Muslim? Wuurgh! Probably all spongeing asylum seekers as well.

The reason this sort of reporting is such a thorny problem is revealed today bythe BBC in ''No evidence' of UK Mumbai link'. Apparently:
A top Indian official has said there was "no authentic information" to suggest that any British citizens were involved in the Mumbai attacks.

Maharashtra state chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh said he "totally denied" reports.

Gordon Brown said he had spoken to India's prime minister, who "at no point" suggested there was evidence of any terrorist of British origins.
The allegations appear to have been hot air. Imagine you're a newspaper editor again. You went with the decision to report the poorly sourced rumours that might cause problems for a minority at home, and they've turned out to be probably untrue. What do you do? Ethically, shouldn't you now have a headline putting the record straight, even if it's not on the front page?

Here's how the same papers revealed that their front pages were on shaky ground.

The Independent: Third paragraph into the article 'Just ten trained terrorists caused carnage'.

The Telagraph: Last paragraph of 'Mumbai attacks: India raises security footing to 'war level''

The Sun: Um, doesn't bother. Decides to include this in 'Tensions rise as Mumbai mourns' instead:
British Scotland Yard officers were working alongside Indian investigators yesterday as forensic probes continued at terror sites.

Two suited officers at the Taj Mahal Hotel scene declined to comment yesterday on claims that two of the terrorists were Britons of Pakistani origin.

Police sources in Mumbai said checks were continuing into claims that the pair had lived in the Leeds or Bradford area and trained in a Pakistani terror camp.

Fingerprints and DNA samples have been taken from the bodies of all nine dead terrorists and handed to Scotland Yard and British Intelligence.
The Mirror: Last couple of sentences of ''Smiling Assassin’ tells of Mumbai plot as full horror is revealed' say:
A spokesman for the British Embassy said: “We believe all the British victims have now been accounted for.”

He said the embassy did not believe any of the terrorists are from the UK, ending speculation of a British link to the attacks.
The Express: One sentence in the midle of the front page story 'TERRORIST: I DON’T WANT TO DIE' that says:
Early reports of a British link to the gang were dismissed by Downing Street, the Foreign Office and Scotland Yard.
The Star: Publish a story with the headline 'UK LINK TO MUMBAI HORROR' that, despite saying, 'The link came as reports claiming Yorkshiremen had been among the attackers were denied,' reports on how a man who is alleged to be a trainer with the group who are alleged to be behind the attacks it alleged to have been in Birmingham the day before the attacks.

And what of the Mail? Despite not splashing its coverage on the front page, it updates readers who might have read 'Massacre in Mumbai: Up to SEVEN gunmen were British and 'came from same area as 7/7 bombers'' with a paragraph in the middle of ''I was told to kill to my last breath': Captured terrorist's account of Mumbai massacre reveals plan was to kill 5,000', but seems unhappy tht the British connection seems to be false. It also publishes 'Mumbai terrorists were 'funded by cash raised in UK mosques'', another story littered with 'belived to be', 'suggest a link' and 'is accused of' style disclaimers, which is about a group that has denied responsibiity for the attacks - so it mght not be long before the paper buries a denial in another story.

None of the papers saw fit to run a headline story about the claims of British involvement being nixed, deciding to just bung short asides into other articles instead for the most part. The Sun's reaction is by far the worst, despite the paper's original coverage being the most measured of the tabloids that covered the story on their front page.

While the Sun is ignoring the fact that the claims about British terrorists have been denied by several people who ought to know and still playing up the possibility, even the BNP are reporting the denials.

Well done, the Sun.

As Paul Dacre said a few weeks ago - sensation sells papers. Reporting need to be entertaining above everything else.

He didn't mention accuracy.

1 comment:

jungle said...

Riot, you £%*&ers, riot! You know you want to!

You do wonder where this story - a blatent attempt to incite hatred if there ever was one - came from in the first place.