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Reality Check Commentary - a tired journalist’s question

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Andy D

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I spent today covering the mass murder at Grays in Essex of 39 people found dead in a lorry. Just those words are chilling aren’t they, and they should be - mass murder. PA used them first, so I did too, as did many of my colleagues, and this in a sense is why I thought I’d write this post.

Days like today are unusual. I’ve been a regional reporter for 15 years, ten in telly, and this is probably the most international story I’ve covered in real time, unlike, say the Shoreham disaster. At its height I’d imagine there were 40 crews and sets of journos at that industrial estate today. Yet our jobs, especially in live TV reporting, involve, if we’re honest, a certain amount of theatre. There’s very little new information on the ground. Most of what we say comes via the office gleaned from respected sources, again PA. But not everything - not all the words, not how we interpret the words we’re given.

And my patch covers Kent. We’ve done a lot of migrant / trafficking stories over this past year. We’ve also tried to investigate why some people are so desperate to get here. And obviously we know that not all of them make it. My producer wanted me to reflect that in my final piece at the scene today at the end of, what would have been six minutes of coverage. I was happy to. This is what I said:

‘All year, it seems, we’ve been bringing you stories of migrants so desperate to escape the most horrific circumstances in countries around the world - and ending up here, in our region, as a gateway to Britain.

‘Many of those stories have unfortunately ended in tragedy. Few as heartbreaking and on the sheer scale as this discovery today.’

My question (and thank you for your patience if you’ve managed to read this far) is, is this ok? In journalism terms this strays a little into what I’d call ‘commentary’ and it’s not really my job. I can justify it in its sense of compassion and the weight of deaths, I work for ITV and the News at Ten anchor isn’t straying from a touch of commentary in his job too, and I like it, my boss liked it. But we’re not the only ones straying into commentary - Fox News does too.

It was an exhausting day and these days are strange, intense and emotional. I blocked it out to do my job but now I can feel it and I think that’s right. I pray for those 39 souls and their families and I suspect, in our own ways, we all will. And maybe I’m writing this here as a way to share that sadness as much as anything else. And yet my neighbour said she thought she could tell I was upset on screen and that troubled me. Shouldn’t journalists be cold, dispassionate?

And commentary, do we want it? Does it muddy the water or clear it? Do we need it? If so, how much?
 

CageSage

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I think the reason the 'news' is losing out to social media is the lack of comment that brings it home to the consumer/reader. In small doses, and where appropriate, commentary can open hearts as well as eyes.

My opinion.
 

Rich.

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Thanks for sharing that, Andy. It's a hard job you have there. And I think you've raised some interesting questions. The most pertinent of which is, The death of 39 people locked into a cold-storage truck – is calling it a tragedy a matter of fact or opinion? I would argue that it is a fact. Is it heartbreaking? Well, that is arguably a mater of opinion. But I know I would rather live in a society that is heartbroken by such an event.

I don't have any answers to these immensely complex questions you've raised. But I do think the answers are not black and white. And I can't help but feel that a healthy society must see its values (including the odious ones) reflected back by its journalists. How do you avoid social-media echo-chamber syndrome? I don't know. How do you even have a nuanced debate amidst our current culture of outrage? I don't know.

But, for what it's worth, I offer you a hug. It was a shitty thing you had to do yesterday. I don't think we want robots reporting our news. We are all human, after all.
 

Leonora

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Does working for ITV free you from the problematic BBC requirement of impartiality?
I suppose if you'd wanted to be scrupulously detached you would have said 'migrants who seem desperate...' or otherwise make it clear that they would claim this, rather than you.
But to risk their lives in this way seems evidence that they are desperate, regardless of why, and therefore I think what you said is fine.
In answer to @CageSage, I do think reporting can be a blessed escape from the relentless opinion of social media, but personal opinion will always creep in - witness reporting of Brexit over the last 4 years. We're only human.
 

Eva Ulian

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Yes, I agree, we need to feel disdain at such events- BUT have you ever thought that such circumstances are purposely and wilfully brought about because "someone" has an agenda to take over and control Europe?

Italy, where I live is plagued by such episodes on a weekly basis as so are Spain, Greece, France, Germany... How many times can Europe fit into that immense continent Africa? Yes some malignant force is making people react in such desperate ways, risk life itself just to get out and empty Africa.

Africa is a rich and fertile country if only those who have an agenda to control Europe would allow its natives to cultivate it and live there. But this idea is continuously strangled, chocked and not allowed to surface. The pen is mightier than the sword... as a journalist you are in a better position than most of us to allow this idea become a reality so action may be taken accordingly.
 

Rich.

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Hi everyone,

Allow me to step in here for a moment with my Guardian hat on. It is Litopia policy to avoid political discussion. To quote @AgentPete:
We discourage any political discussions here on Litopia, for the simple reason that rarely have political views been so highly polarised. And in truth, the internet is not short of forums where political views of all hues can be aired.

Please can we keep this discussion confined to the nature of journalism, and avoid commentary on specific issues. It's a fine line, to be sure. But I would appreciate your cooperation.

Many thanks.
 

Emily

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Ah, @Andy D , I am so sorry you had to do, and be there to witness that. Mind yourself over the coming days because that kind of thing tends to replay itself and is a massive shock in itself :heart:
 

Katie-Ellen

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Just terrible. But I would say, stay as invisible as humanly possible and stick to reportage. Let the events tell the story. Very upsetting. The police officers and Ambo have no public vehicle to express their distress, and they see sad and dreadful things all the time, and have feelings, thoughts and undoubtedly opinions about it, and must find ways to deal with it, both then and there, and afterwards. PTSD must be rife in the emergency services, and that's why they need tight camaraderie and exceedingly robust humour. You are a professional communicator. But unless you're writing an analysis or opinion piece, the story needs to speak for itself.
 

Steve C

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How awful. I know for a fact many Chinese lads pass through Bangkok on their way to seek their fortune in the world. They are known as 'piglets' and I once wrote a detailed article entitled 'Pigs Can Fly' showing many of the tricks used to get them to their destination. no UK newspaper showed any interest at the time but now the snakeheads are using trucks and suffocating people instead of planes with air conditioning. Terrible reflection on life as it now is. Their poor families back in Cina will be absolutely distraught.
 

Rich.

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This thread has been nagging at me all day, not least the irony of my Guardian post above – asking that people refrain from political commentary in a thread about commentary in journalism. But then, different things are appropriate in different places. That's what we're talking about, isn't it?

I can't help but feel that journalistic objectivity can only ever be an ideal to strive for, a noble and necessary ideal, but an ideal nonetheless. Choices are made about which stories to cover, but no matter how objective the subsequent reporting is, the initial choice to cover that and not something else will be subjective.

I think journalism at its best holds society to account for its actions, and helps to inform collective debates about the kind of society we want to live in. Is it possible to separate emotional responses from that, for any reporter?

We know when a journalist is emotionally affected, don't we? We know they're not robots. We know that something must be happening behind the eyes and the stoic delivery.

I don't know where I'm going with this post. I guess it has something to do with journalistic integrity. If objectivity can only ever be an ideal (an essential ideal), perhaps integrity can be something more concrete.

Communities do need some common values or they cease to be communities. Does journalism have a part to play in that? I think it does.
 

Katie-Ellen

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This vale of tears. I didn't know that about the 'piglets' @Steve C. One thinks of the great war correspondents to see how they handled it, and observe how and where they drew the line wearing their professional hat, talking down a mic in a veritable living hell. Right now, the Kurds, but how many other places too, right now. This for you @Andy D is different. It's immediate, here and now. Your home patch. Objectivity is a mirage, of course - though much vaunted as the go-to smack-down in any highly charged debate. Police officers have to tell families their loved ones are dead, and look in their faces as they hear the worst news in the world. The police officers must not cry in front of those families. Must not. Or they would fail them. It affects them, it involves them, but it's not about them.

If someone could see you were sad @Andy D that doesn't mean you handled it unprofessionally. You were shocked. Those poor souls have the right to have their story told. They need journalists to gird themselves to do it, hardest of all for those who actually saw the bodies, worse for those removing them bodily from that hellish container, and you have the right to shield and support yourself as best you can while doing that job of work.
 

Robert M Derry

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It's an awful story and it must have been tough to report on it. I wouldn't consider your point to be steering into commentary.

I think the loss of any human life is tragic and heartbreaking and I think the majority of people would agree with this, so I'm not sure if this really constitutes commentary.

If you'd started discussing the politics of migration and UK asylum seeker policies etc then it would have become an opinion piece, which is not the same as journalism.

There's a fine line, but I'd say journalism is reporting facts. As soon as you draw an interpretation from those facts as to what they mean/indicate it becomes an opinion. However, there's nothing wrong with having an opinion as it encourages debate, but the forum in and the position from which the opinion is expressed just needs to be considered. If you're filling an article with your opinions but reporting them as facts then I'd have issue with that.
 

Andy D

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Wow, litopians, thanks for such a rich, interesting and rewarding response. I didn’t really expect that when I was writing this post at stupid o’clock last night. I should have known better!

Firstly, and honestly, I am fine, but the fact that such beautiful, empathetic and supportive people are out there certainly makes that easier.

@CageSage @Rich. you certainly reflect where I’m coming from, in fact you all do in your understanding of the nuances and subtleties of the arguments involved - and the balance of objectivity @Katie-Ellen Hazeldine that should always and vitally be the aim, and you so eloquently describe.

@Leonora I think there are differences between the BBC and ITV and I’m a massive fan of the BBC personally. I am slowly coming round to the theory that it’s perhaps struggling with the weight of social liberalism it’s trying to reflect, but sort of impose. But to say more on that would I think stray into the political.

@Eva Ulian I can’t say I agree but thankfully I’m a regional reporter not required or desired to take a more precise world analysis. I would say - and I hope I’m safe to here - that the reason stories like this have such an impact on us is perhaps because, not only are they tragic, they sort of describe the complexity and confusion we live with now globally in microcosm. I used to think that maybe there were people conducting these things on a grand scale but I’d recommend a book by an amazing author and journalist Jon Ronson ‘Them’, that really got beneath that idea, for me.

@Rainbird thank you, thank you, thank you. I really am ok but I will take your reminder to be kind to myself seriously ❤️ (that’s a heart emoji if it works)

@Steve C I didn’t know that. And the fact these people seem to have come from one of the world’s most wealthy superpowers is another shock. Hopefully we can now find out why.

You’re all lush.
 

Andy D

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It's an awful story and it must have been tough to report on it. I wouldn't consider your point to be steering into commentary.

I think the loss of any human life is tragic and heartbreaking and I think the majority of people would agree with this, so I'm not sure if this really constitutes commentary.

If you'd started discussing the politics of migration and UK asylum seeker policies etc then it would have become an opinion piece, which is not the same as journalism.

There's a fine line, but I'd say journalism is reporting facts. As soon as you draw an interpretation from those facts as to what they mean/indicate it becomes an opinion. However, there's nothing wrong with having an opinion as it encourages debate, but the forum in and the position from which the opinion is expressed just needs to be considered. If you're filling an article with your opinions but reporting them as facts then I'd have issue with that.
Thanks Robert, just saw this. And yes, I agree entirely.
 

Barbara

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Just caught up with this properly.

Wow Andy. Having to do your job when something of such high emotion happens must be doubly hard. It must feel like not being allowed to feel.

All I can say is that I agree with this:

Ah, @Andy D , I am so sorry you had to do, and be there to witness that. Mind yourself over the coming days because that kind of thing tends to replay itself and is a massive shock in itself :heart:

The aftereffect of stuff like this often hits the soul when everything is quiet. So look after yourself. I hope you have someone to talk to. Hugs.
 

Andy D

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Just caught up with this properly.

Wow Andy. Having to do your job when something of such high emotion happens must be doubly hard . It must feel like not being allowed to feel. All I can say is that I agree with this:



The aftereffect of stuff like this often hits the soul when everything is quiet. So look after yourself. I hope you have someone to talk to. Hugs.
Thanks Barbara :)
 

Barbara

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PS, I think it's good when viewers can see when a journalist is emotionally affected. Maybe it reaches further, I don't know? Like Katie said, their story needs to be told. You never know who hears it. Maybe it reaches someone who needs it.
 

KateESal

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@Andy D as a BBC journo who's had to cover distressing stories, you have my huge sympathy. Grim, grim, grim.

I think allowing a modicum of humanity in your reporting is fine. It's a horrible tragedy and in some ways, it can help viewers engage with the reality of what's happened if the reporter appears to be moved.

Often you can do that by your choice of words. Think of Michael Buerk's famous report on the Ethiopian famine in the 1980s. His own human response to the appalling nature of the event came through, even if he didn't explicitly give his opinion or describe his emotions.

It's important that a reporter is dispassionate in order to be seen as an authoritative source of information...but at the same time, you don't want to be a robot.
 
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