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The alarming way in which police press officers are now generating their own news coverage is nicely exposed in this piece by Nigel Green, a freelance journalist based in Northumberland. (www.nigelgreenmedia.com). A version of this feature appeared in Media Guardian in December 2009.
THEY say that dog should not eat dog.
And as a former crime reporter on The Sunderland Echo, I am reluctant to criticise colleagues still working on hard-pressed regional newspapers.
But the disturbing trend in the way they cover crime has left me so concerned that I can no longer bite my lip.
Last year, I highlighted how Northumbria Police hold back serious crimes from the media.
Meanwhile, the force’s £1.5 million-a-year corporate communications department pumps out more and more releases on falling crime rates, clampdowns, raids, initiatives and other positive PR stories.
The result, I believe, is that most crime reporting in the North East is now little more than churnalism.
But, rather than simply making wild claims, as part of a dissertation for an MA, I examined the way the reporting of crime has changed since I started in the job.
For my case study, I chose Northumbria Police – one of Britain’s biggest forces - and The Evening Chronicle – the principal regional newspaper in the North East.
Starting with Northumbria, I found that, in June 2009, they released 76 crimes – less than one per cent of the actual total.
Taking sex attacks as one example, while 62 were reported to Northumbria, the media were only told about three.
Of six stabbings, none were released.
As well as only a tiny percentage of crime being reported, delays in the release of information are another worrying factor.
In1989, the average delay between a crime happening and being reported in The Chronicle was one day.
Today, the mean average is nearly 14 days.
While this figure is distorted by some crimes taking up to 100 days to be released, even expressed as a median, the average delay is three days.
How can it be that, in the 21st Century, we are slower than ever to tell readers what is happening ?
The answer is that the police are slower at releasing crimes. The mean average delay in Northumbria releasing crimes is 9.5 days. The median average is three days.
My research also uncovered a change in the complexion of crime reporting.
In 1989, around 29 per cent of The Chronicle’s police-related stories involved the release of actual crimes.
The rest was made up mainly of court stories (47 per cent) and accidents (16 per cent).
Only four per cent could be classed as positive PR-type stories dealing with police raids, campaigns and initiatives.
Today, stories on actual crimes have fallen to 20 per cent, while court reports are down to 39 per cent.
The gap has been filled by positive PR stories, which have risen nearly SIX-FOLD to 23 per cent.
So many of these contain officers parroting the same comments about the region being a “safe city to live and work in”. Invariably such comments are published without challenge.
Of the 55 positive PR stories put out by Northumbria in June 2009, The Chronicle carried more than two thirds of them.
This trend towards publishing more positive stories and fewer actual crimes raises crucial questions.
Firstly, will readers buy newspapers that fail to report serious crimes in their area ?
Secondly, now newspapers are so dependent on PR material to fill pages, will they dare bite the hand that feeds ?
Northumbria’s corporate communications’ department now sends out not only pictures of raids and crime backgrounders – but even court reports.
Like all forces, Northumbria is under pressure to hit Government targets on public confidence and fear of crime.
This is a key reason for the force spending £1.5 million a year on corporate communications.
Meanwhile, The Chronicle has suffered wave after wave of redundancies.
Editorial Director Paul Robertson said “Our team of journalists has worked hard at maintaining the role of watchdog and champion of the communities our newspapers serve but it is ever more challenging as we have to adapt to changes both within the industry and the economy in general.
“From a cursory check of our archives, I’d question some of the methodology
and some of the findings of this report.
“But I’d be naïve to say there isn’t a growing number of press releases making their way into publications across the country as provided by PR professionals.
“A newspaper’s job is to report what’s going on but to challenge institutions such as the police, councils and other public bodies to ensure they are providing value for money and doing the job they are paid to do. Our aim is to be a critical friend.
“Having said that, bodies such as the police and councils have become much
more media-savvy and, with pressure on resources, there is no doubt some
newspapers have taken press releases at face value rather than always
questioning the content within.
“But the vast majority of the main stories we carry come through good contacts from within the organisations and readers rather than through an institution's press office. Each story we get is judged on merit.
“It is down to editors to work with their teams and ensure our journalists continue to be given the opportunity to develop stories to their full potential through investigative work, probing questions and not simply taking what is supplied at face value.
“It is more important than ever for local newspapers to have the freedom to
challenge and be a true champion of the people.
“I think we do that but it is something we should continue to remind ourselves on a daily basis.”
Oxford Mail Editor Simon O'Neill is more critical of his local force.
O’Neill, who worked as a crime reporter in London in the 1980s, said: “When I walked in here in 2004 as editor, I couldn't believe the relations in respect of the appalling quality and timing of the information we got.”
After claiming his team had been repeatedly “fobbed off” when requesting information on crimes, O'Neill carried a page one lead last year claiming just 0.3 per cent of crime were released by Thames Valley.
O'Neill claims the tactic led to a slight improvement in the flow of information.
But he added: “If the Thames Valley example is replicated across the country, there is a danger that newspapers are just going to shovel the crap the police want them to shovel.
“When you balance the fact that resources are decreasing, it is the easiest option. It is exhausting for my team trying to extricate basic information that the public have an absolute right to know.”
Nick Davies, journalist and author of Flat Earth News, said: “If you had told people, say, 40 years ago, that our constitutionally free press would reach the point where we'd allow the police to write their own news coverage, they'd have thought you were being paranoid.
“But it's happened and, of course, not just with the police.
“This is important research, because so many editors and owners still try to deny that this kind of PR infiltration is happening in our newsrooms.
“If we don’t admit it, we won’t be able to tackle it.”
“Our corporate communications budget includes consultation, marketing, web-based services as well as services to the news media. Budget increases are partly due to the fact that we can no longer rely solely on the media to communicate with the public, but must use a whole range of channels and mechanisms to get important messages across.”