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Tips on how to cover police news properly

Police force lies about its involvement in the deaths of two teenage boys, gets found out. All in a day’s work. But why do the media have to be complicit?

What a difference a day’s worth of due diligence makes. When reports first surfaced from national sources of an eruption of violence in the Cardiff suburb of Ely following the deaths of two boys on bikes, the casual reader could have been forgiven for thinking the South Wales police did a good job quelling the unrest.

But it did not explain why the police and crime commissioner felt the need to deny rumours that their deaths came as a result of a police chase in the first place. If I tell my partner, apropos nothing, that the neighbours are spreading false rumours about my alleged infidelity and she ought to stop being angry at me for no reason, should I be surprised at her reaction being that of increasing suspicion?

Of course, especially if the denial is so strong that it threatens to become the story. And so it proved: only a few hours later, footage surfaced of what looked like a police van following two cyclists who may have been the boys, and eventually the police admitted to doing as much. All no thanks to much of the mainstream press, who repeated verbatim all local police chiefs’ lines in all their reporting above and before alternative accounts of events in Ely.

Thank goodness for social media reporting then.

Some may sneer at citizen journalists, who are seen as lacking the integrity of their professional counterparts, but when it comes to covering police actions, the major media news outlets are all too happy to prostrate themselves before whatever police press release has been shoved under their noses blinding them to the truth.

As a result, what happened in Ely is yet another failure in a long history of instances of police causing more trouble by their actions than they should. Sadly, we know they will do it again. They learn nothing, ever. The mainstream press, however, could and must learn lessons from their actions if they wish to be trusted. So here are three tips on how to cover such events.

Tip 1: Just the facts please

If the first reports of an incident involving the police come from the police, it’s best to assume that they might portray themselves favourably. So report what they tell you as you would live court proceedings: just the facts, lest you incur the contempt of the local community.

Avoid scene setting in a way that dehumanises the people involved, like the Daily Mail’s quasi-voyeuristic depiction of events.

Paragraph from Daily Mail article -- Rioters burn and overturn cars and charge at police on Cardiff estate

Or the Sun article which supported such vivid language with a comment from a former DCI interviewed by Julia Hartley-Brewer, as if the opinions of a man who thinks the campaign for gay equality is equal to Nazi Germany count for anything.

You’d also think it basic reporting hygiene to write clearly, but the LBC’s irresponsibly written intro seems to imply that the so-called 'riot mob' killed the two teenagers, before directing the reader’s attention towards the sort of rumour it prefers to believe of the local station being a target for attack.

Introduction to LBC article -- Two teenagers dead in 'serious crash' before riot mob set cars alight during night of violence in Cardiff

The one error common to all these sources and more was to print the initial falsehood uttered from the police and crime commissioner. Some outlets (like ITV) titled their story with it.

ITV News headline -- False rumours of police chase in teenager deaths sparked Cardiff riots, says police boss

This came from the PA news agency, the source for the UK’s news outlets. Even they titled their copy in a way that portrayed the police as noble defenders of law and order, with their condemnation of ‘totally unacceptable’ violence from rioters.

Headline from Leigh journal via PA news -- Police condemn ‘totally unacceptable’ violence in riots after fatal crash

A falsehood in their reporting is a virus ready that poisons the entire news journalism environment.

Tip 2: Language is important

If you can’t immediately locate the source of a clash between civilians and the police, at least do not call the civilians ‘rioters’, out of respect for the local community. The press must accept that, partly because of previous reporting blunders caused by their prejudices (see Brixton in 1981, or Mark Duggan in 2011), the word ‘riot’ is no longer a neutral term, and its continued use disrespects the justifiable anger of Ely residents directed towards an antagonistic police force. That even the residents interviewed who deplored the actions of their neighbours refrained from using the word indicates a degree of respect for the area that all of the mainstream press fail to give the places and people they write about.

And gawping at the destruction left in the aftermath of the conflict helps no-one either. Would you care to explain why the place might look like a warzone to your viewers, BBC reporter?

BBC News still from video titled -- Ely riot aftermath like an absolute warzone

Cardiff: Ely riot aftermath like an absolute warzone - BBC reporter - BBC News

Tip 3: Don’t crowd out or downplay dissenting voices from the police narrative.

Journalists should, as a rule, prioritise civilian eyewitness reports (and not just their photo and video footage) for coverage and a viewpoint that the police can never provide. Otherwise, you find yourself in a situation where a national broadcaster presents ‘Shocking video footage [which] shows Ely rioters hurling fireworks at police officers’ free of the context needed to properly explain the origins of the occasion. It only sets up a reader for far bigger shock of finding out that the police officers’ actions escalated the conflict at every opportunity.

A special shout out goes to the Telegraph for leading with the police commissioner’s falsehood and the chief constable’s condemnations before the reader sees any other points of view in their coverage.

The Mirror’s take perpetuated the notion that 100-150 people (they somehow got a headcount?) were instigators, to further cement the police's role as protectors, while couching their description of boys’ fatal crash in quote marks (two teenagers died, so I’d say it was a serious crash, rather than a ‘serious crash’). The reader, does however, eventually gain a valid perspective from a friend of one of the children's families, who crucially confirmed that the police had left them in the dark about the whereabouts of Harvey's body.

Of course, you must be sure to verify and corroborate any sources you receive, in case the local police have placed a plant in the area.

Also, for those who like to see themselves as speaking-truth-to-power types, it might be handy for you not to lead the recriminations when they inevitably come if your employer was caught out. You lost your moral authority on the issue when your employer decided to ingest the police’s take on events hook, line, and sinker. But if you still wish to cover the aftermath, you might be better off holding a Q&A between the aggrieved and aggressors, and making sure the aggrieved can speak and the aggressors do listen.

Perhaps if more news outlets followed these three simple tips, then the profession might recover its reputation for fair and accurate reporting, leaving the job of shilling for perpetual liars to the blue lives matter brigade.

As it happens, questions still need answering of South Wales police. So there’s an opportunity to redeem yourselves. I believe in you. Just.

By Eugene K

Photo by David Peinado on Pexels

All blogposts are published with the permission of the author. The views expressed are solely the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of StopWatch UK.

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