Tuesday, 27 March 2012

31. Sensationalism is rarely sensational, esp in local newspapers. You might get away with it once or twice but not forever.

The trouble most people have with papers like The Sun and formerly the News of the World can be encapsulated in one word: "sensationalism". That and the fact they are read by the working classes...dreadful bunch of people.

The chattering classes can ignore tabloids with a dismissive wave of the hand without ever really looking into them, naturally.

And contrary to what some former tabloid hacks will tell you I never had to make anything up (actually that's a lie I did work for ahem the Sunday Sport - I was young, I was naive, I needed the money, that's usually the excuse...actually I needed the money - and I confess that it is not true that Kangaroos played a football match or Sir Trevor McDonald's face was seen on the White Cliffs of Dover).

But oddly enough, even here I didn't need to make much up. Indeed I learned a lot in how to investigate real - if not particularly edifying - stories on shoestring budgets.

How to track down a Blind Date contestant using their first name, approximate area and clues such as: "I work in a bakery where we make all kinds of bread, if you were a loaf what kind would it be?"

(In my defence here it was the biggest show on television at the time. And I was told to find a story on it once a week. I did. Every week. In the face of the bigger tabloids.)

However the same techniques I learned there - that got me genuine stories - I applied to more productive use years later. Tracing people with few clues and not much of a budget.

The good tabloids do produce sensationalism, if you will, but that is the result of bloody hard work and months of it. And it is only very occasionally wrong. Even the best reporters can make mistakes.

On the whole though I saw a lot of investigation go into stories.

Now compare it to this story. On the face of it the front page headline is correct: Bridport: Pickpockets target market day crowds - enough to scare the wits out of any pensioner.

All well and good until you get to the quotes from anyone in authority who say they have no knowledge of such a crime even taking place. Actually it gets even worse...the purse was found and handed in to the police. Indeed one might wonder why this honesty isn't trumpeted and the answer is lazy journalism and sensationalist reporting. 

Quite frankly it looks ridiculous to almost everyone or just scares naive and gullible local people for no due reason. 

A personal theory is that because local people know their area they will soon know what is and is not true. So while you can get away with such headlines once in a while the cumulative effect is ever diminishing returns. Sales jump up year on year because the news has become so much more racy but like the boy that cried wolf people soon stop paying attention to them in locals.

For once you know someone who is connected to the exaggerated circumstances distrust, like damp in walls, creeps in. Bit by bit the foundations of a local newspaper are undermined and will crumble.

It doesn't help that people will accuse you of sensationalism if they don't like the story as happened in this particular case.

So when tempted to write over blowing the circumstances, taking that top spin a little too hard, just remember you will be caught out. And it won't look good.

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