But that’s what it’s all about folks, and I want to help explain what’s going on. People were understandably flabbergasted this week after press regulator Ipso ruled that the Daily Express hadn’t breached accuracy guidelines with its “Sturgeon urged to stop multi-million pound referendum crusade article”, which reported “widespread outbreaks of violence” during the Scottish independence referendum.
The article clearly gave a misrepresentative, one-sided view of events, so how could Ipso rule in the paper’s favour? Well, quite easily, really. The regulator doesn’t assess the impact of articles on readers, it doesn’t look at the whole, it looks at the parts. Regulators require complainants to be specific about which parts of an article are inaccurate. If those parts can’t be proven to be so, the regulator will not rule in favour of the complainant, regardless of the bigger picture.
Journalists are obviously very wise to this, and it’s easy to learn the tricks of the trade. It’s totally possible, and incredibly common, to create a very misleading picture while keeping an article on the right side of accuracy.
I’m going to take a look at a few of the most inflammatory lines in the Express article, and explain why I think Ipso ruled against the complainant in this case.
But before we get started, it’s important to know what the complaint to Ipso was. It came in two main points, so bear these in mind when you’re reading this. I’m looking at other claims in the article because it’s relevant to do so, but the complaint itself only dealt with the following:
1.) That the article’s claim of “widespread outbreaks of violence” was inaccurate
2.) That the use of a photograph in the article could give a false impression of who was responsible for the violence.
Now, the second complaint is pretty easy to get out of: the Express article doesn’t lay the blame at either the feet of nationalists or unionists’ directly. You’re probably away to check it, because you’re probably convinced it did, but that’s just clever editorial trickery at play. It’s quite easy in media to say something without explicitly saying it.
The first complaint, I’ll address below.
It’s also important to say that this blog is an exercise in speculation, designed to illustrate how a press regulator might assess a complaint, and how a publisher might defend itself. I don’t have any more knowledge about it than you do. I don’t know how the article was commissioned and I don’t know what steps author Siobhan McFadyen took while putting it together. This is just my imagination at work.
The point of this is to help you understand how journalists and editors think when they’re assessing the accuracy of their output, to give you some insight into that process. Keep that in mind when I’m saying these claims are technically not inaccurate – I’m not saying that makes them right or wrong, I’m saying that this is how media people think.
“Families were split all over Scotland after the Government announced its plans to hold a vote on the 18th of September two years ago.”
Were families really split all over Scotland? Probably, yes. All that’s required for this to be technically true is for a handful of families in different parts of Scotland to disagree on whether to vote Yes or No. I’ve certainly seen a few people on Twitter talk about proper fall outs in their families over indyref.
It’s tiny in comparison to the number of people who’ve told me it didn’t make a blind bit of difference within their families, but they do exist.
And what does ‘families split’ actually mean? It could be as simple as a mild disagreement. Technically that’s a split. Who knows?
We’re not stupid. We know what that wording is suggesting – that families were ripped apart, torn in two, never the same again. Three simple words, ‘families were split’, is enough to paint a picture of deep division without any evidence of it, but technically it’s not inaccurate.
“Nicola Sturgeon is ready to unleash yet more violence on the streets at a cost to the taxpayer” (picture caption)
As First Minister of Scotland and the person most likely to call a second Scottish independence referendum, Nicola Sturgeon is, therefore, technically responsible if it all goes wrong. It’s inflammatory, and it’s a great example of the line between reporting and opinion being blurred. In a commentary piece, this would be considered a valid enough opinion, but it shouldn’t belong in a news report (I’m counting the picture captions in these articles as part of the report, because the parts make up the whole and they’re all important).
We’ll never know, though, whether Ipso would have considered this over the line because the complaint didn’t reference it. Keep that in mind for the future if you ever want to complain: be very specific.
It’s worth noting, too, that these captions accompany pictures of indyref crowds, police and an angry-looking NicolaSturgeon. These have been selectively chosen to support to tone of the reporting, and they are genuine images from throughout the indyref period. We can argue about whether these pictures represent the overwhelming mood of the indyref campaign (they don’t), but the Express will always fall back on the fact that they exist – there’s no smoke without fire, and all that.
“There was major disruption to the lives of ordinary Scots over two years” (picture caption)
‘Major disruption’ is a vague term. It could mean anything, and different people will have a different perception of major disruption. This statement also doesn’t give any idea of scale. “The lives of ordinary Scots” is not necessarily the lives of all ordinary Scots, but the statement probably does at least apply to some. Technically, it’s not inaccurate.
As a part, it helps make up the whole and therefore plays a role in the misleading picture the Express painted, but as a stand alone statement it’s not that inflammatory. Rather than lots of outrageous claims, articles can often contain lots of small, misleading ones to wind up with a piece pretty strong in tone.
“There was violence on the streets of Scotland and never before seen abuse.”
Yes, there was violence on the streets of Scotland – the night of 19 September at George Square will always be cited as evidence for this.
Technically, there probably was “never before seen abuse” – cybernat/britnat nonsense on Twitter, for example, is fairly new and can be abusive. Technically, it’s not inaccurate.
Of course, the impression this sentence gives is quite stark. “Never before seen abuse” by default aligns it with nationalists, because that was the new, emerging movement. If the abuse had never been seen before in the status quo of the union, then it can only be the arrival of those pesky nationalists that stirred it up.
Clever, ain’t it?
“At the height of the campaign there was violent outbreaks, death threats and ugly scenes all over Scotland as campaigns gathered on both sides of the debate.”
Yes, this is true, but there’s no mention of the explosion in democratic engagement, the local meetings across the country where people got together and had a great time imagining another way of doing things. The problem here is not that the statement is untrue, the problem is the lack of balance in the article.
There is no space given to any of the voices who praised the campaign. The only image presented is one that hones in on the fact there were incidents of violence. This is bad reporting, it’s bad journalism, but it’s still technically not inaccurate.
But this article probably ticks the box of balance in a reporter’s mind. Why? Because Sturgeon has a quote at the bottom. That’s enough for a reporter to convince themselves they’ve offered both sides of the story. A good news article should give space to opposing voices, or voices representing different positions. Always keep an eye out for the quote right at the bottom of an article, that’s often a reporter’s way of ticking the balance box. It’s worth noting that reporters also know that most people don’t read a news report all the way through.
It becomes less about asking yourself whether you’ve done an honest, decent job of representing what happened, and more about meeting the technical criteria of a news report. The editorial line of a newspaper becomes more important (it’s worth pointing out here that reporters’ articles are often changed during the editorial process. Their job on a newsdesk is not to offer their idea of journalism to the world, they’ve been employed by a newspaper to produce a specific kind of material.)
“Police Scotland was forced to set up a special task force to deal with widespread outbreaks of violence, threats and public disorder for months before and after the referendum.”
Ah, the old “widespread outbreaks of violence” claim, and probably the single most controversial part in this article. But, you guessed it, technically it’s not inaccurate. In my mind, there are two ways the Express could seek to justify this if Ipso had bothered to take the complaint seriously.
Firstly, “widespread outbreaks of violence” could be technically true even if only a very small number of incidents happened, but happened over a widespread area, or across a period of time. The article provides plenty of evidence to support a claim like this: we hear about threats, abuse, violence, arrests and police having to create a special unit to deal with indyref matters. It’s easy to see that the regulator would be satisfied here that enough evidence had been provided in the article to make that an accurate statement.
I can hear you all screaming ‘But it’s a pile of pish, we had a remarkably calm country given we were asking a huge constitutional question, people fight wars over this shit, the worst we had was a few tanked up numpties trying to cause trouble’. I agree with you, but as I said, the regulator isn’t interested in the bigger picture, it ain’t getting involved. You have to make a specific complaint about a specific claim, and if your complaint isn’t watertight the regulator won’t come down on your side.
Secondly, the Express could claim it was just reporting that Police Scotland set up a special task force to deal with these hypothetical scenarios. Read the sentence again and you’ll see that technically, that argument could hold up. It’s ridiculous, I know, but these things descend into technicalities, and I wouldn’t put anything past the Express.
So there you have it.
Like I said before, this is just a creative exercise designed to help you understand how to dissect the news. When you’re perplexed at how some newspaper articles can be so incredibly inaccurate, it becomes a lot clearer when you learn to read pieces as parts, rather than as wholes.
The problem this causes is the massive disconnect between reporters and readers. While readers are seeing and digesting whole articles, reporters are thinking in parts. On social media when readers are furiously complaining about a misleading article and journalists are demanding they point out specifically what’s wrong with it, this is what’s going on. It’s as though we’re speaking in different languages.
I hope this post has been useful in joining the dots. The two main points should be these:
– Be very specific and targeted when you make a complaint. Don’t complain in general terms about the whole of an article being misleading; concentrate on very specific things.
– Learn to read articles in parts, and make an effort to understand the mechanics of news reporting. You’ll begin to see things very differently.
I know a few of you will be thinking “Yeah right Angela, very good, but you’ll be just as bad, you’re a journalist as well”. And you’re right. Journalism is a skill, we learn techniques, the tools of the trade. This is all part of that, and it’s really not a bad thing in and of itself.
Knowing how to write articles without leaving a publication open to either a regulator giving it a slap on the wrist, or worse, having legal action taken against it, helps journalists and editors expose serious wrongdoing by powerful people.
The fundamental question in journalism should always come down to this: Is this in the public interest?
In the Express’s case, I don’t believe it was. It was done in the interests of a pre-determined editorial line. I see examples every day of the tools of my trade being used for self-serving purposes, but until readers learn to use the language of reporters, their complaints will continue to fall on deaf ears.
Taking newspapers to task over this kind of misleading reporting – and we’ve seen years of it directed towards asylum seekers and migrants – is becoming a more urgent task than ever, and I believe we all have a responsibility now to do what we can, where we can, to fight it.
Angela Haggerty is the editor of CommonSpace and a columnist with the Sunday Herald