A version of this post first appeared on All Media Scotland on February 6, 2013
Sometimes the media machine does a particularly brutal job of grinding up and spitting out the people, facts and issues at the centre of a news story.
It isn’t something the Fourth Estate should be particularly proud of.
My own first taste of this was 10 years ago, as I made the transition from tabloid hack to public relations flack.
At that time newly-formed public body Scottish Water was taking a pasting after an organism called Cryptosporidium was discovered in Glasgow’s water supply. Independent public health experts took the decision to issue a precautionary ‘boil notice’ for all tap water – and media hell was unleashed.
Almost two weeks into the crisis I was drafted in to help support Scottish Water’s under-siege media team. Acclimatisation involved reviewing the extensive media coverage to date, as well as the statements and information issued on behalf of Scottish Water.
The shock to the system was pretty profound. As a hack I’d been involved in media feeding frenzies without any qualms. This was the first time I’d seen the results from the other side and it wasn’t edifying.
Reasoned responses and explanations where routinely ignored or jettisoned in favour of doomsday scenarios, panic-laden ‘what-ifs’ and flat out scaremongering, including calls for heads to roll.
Journalists are always going to be focused on the biggest story of the day. As a PR or communications professional a period of intensive and negative media scrutiny is a hazard you prepare for with crisis planning.
However, that water bug experience made me look at the media – the press in particular – in a different light thereafter. What perturbed and unsettled me most deeply was the abject lack of balance in the coverage.
Since then I’ve tried to take a contrary view on whatever big story is being rolled out by the media as, too often for my taste, I find the balance is skewed or missing.
For instance, consider the tale of the mum who took her baby to a rave in Wales. There’s no doubt The Sun landed themselves a corker of an exclusive. The sheer incongruity and shock value makes for a cracking news story.
Add in the fact the concert was stopped by police after other revellers raised concerns and you have public interest and questions of moral and social responsibility to further lubricate the story. Track how it was re-reported across the web and a standout quote repeated over and over comes from Netmums, branding the mother ‘raving mad’.
For balance, the mother in question, Sarah-Jane Hulme was quoted, explaining her baby slept through the event; that she was there to see her older daughter’s band performing a first hometown gig; that she couldn’t leave the baby with a sitter because she was breastfeeding.
Yet that’s not really balance, is it? A lone mum’s protestations sound pretty lame in the face of Netmums condemnation, frowning cops and even a DJ who was ‘heard to say’ the mum was irresponsible.
I took a quick gander at Netmums myself. Sure, there was reaction from parents horrified at the thought of a baby being taken to a rave. But there were also a huge number of thoughtful comments and views supporting Ms Hulme. Those went unreported by the media.
Here’s a thought. A great news story is a great news story. A genuine attempt at balance simply makes such a story even better.
I’d have been offering The Sun far heartier congratulations on their scoop if they’d quoted Ms Hulme’s neighbours, relatives or colleagues at the National Trust for a more textured appraisal of her parenting skills. Or if they’d done the hard work of digging up an expert prepared to be quoted about the importance of shared mother-and-baby experiences that might challenge more traditional views.
Most of all though, I’d love to have seen the media outlet with the balls to ask the real burning question in all of this: What is likely to damage a child more? A night snoozing through a drum and bass gig while wearing industrial ear defenders– or a lifetime of finger pointing and snide comments for being named after a Quentin Tarantino cowboy?