Reporting the Mili-band

The Times website was criticised for its coverage of Saturday’s “Mili-band”, the climate change protest where hundreds of people formed a ring around Kingsnorth Power Station in Kent. Robin Henry’s piece was illustrated with a stock photo of helmetted police in a riot situation. (This has now been removed, after reader complaints, and replaced with a stock photo of a power station which may or may not be Kingsnorth.)

It’s clear that someone at the the Times decided last week that it wasn’t worth sending a photographer to Kent to cover the Mili-band. Someone else (or possibly the same someone) then decided that although the paper wasn’t going to fork out for real pictures, the story wouldn’t be worth running without anything to illustrate it, so they searched for “protest” in the photo library and went with the first picture they found.

Whoever made the decision to use a stock picture was obviously under the impression that it’s possible to illustrate a story about a protest with a generic “protest” image. This is someone who doesn’t understand that visuals are important precisely because not all protests are the same. At the Mili-band, the visual impact came from the sight of hundreds of people peacefully circling a power station with bright yellow sashes, but Times readers will have to gather that from the text rather than seeing it for themselves.

I’ve seen it happen over and over again: a newspaper or website editor decides that a story “won’t work” without a photo, so a lackey skims through stock photo sites or the paper’s own library until a picture can be found to run with the story. There’s a lack of confidence in the power of good copy to stand alone, an obsession with illustration even if it doesn’t add anything at all to the reader’s understanding of the piece. It’s received wisdom that “pictures get people’s attention” and “visuals are important”, so a lot of editors demand images with everything.

But problems arise when the visuals-obsessed editor is also obsessed with cost-cutting and thinks it isn’t worth spending money on original photography. That’s when you risk using stock footage that actively misleads readers by conveying the opposite message. That’s my most charitable guess as to how the Times ended up using a picture of riot police to illustrate a story about a peaceful protest.

The truth might be more sinister than that: perhaps the Times wanted to fit this protest into the narrative of protests that end up in violence, and decided to achieve that through the visuals. If you really believe that readers rely on the photos to make sense of the text, why would you pick a picture that conflicts with what the text is saying? Because you don’t much care about what you’re doing, or because you’re trying make readers believe something different from what they’re reading? Neither interpretation is particularly flattering to the Times.

But perhaps I’m making it sound as if the misuse of a stock image was only a problem because it distracted readers from the eye-witness reporting in the text. Of course not. The text itself is as ropey as you might expect if you’ve seen protest “reporting” in the Times before.

It’s pretty clear from reading the Mili-band story that the Times wasn’t prepared to pay Robin Henry’s train fare down to Kent, so we’ve ended up with a cut-and-paste job. There are obvious clues, like the slogans quoted: “Oi Ed Miliband, keep the carbon in the ground” and “Miliband, don’t be a silly-band”. Exactly the same slogans are quoted by AOL News, MSN News and Littlehampton Today, among others. Anyone who’s ever been to a protest knows how unlikely it is that  several different observers would all hear the same two slogans. Slogans get invented, chanted, changed and abandoned. Two of my friends who actually attended the Mili-band say that they heard some bizarre slogans, including (to the tune of the hokey-cokey): “WHOOOAH, dirty coal! WHOOOAH, dirty coal! Knees bend and get osteoporosis!”

When you get five or more news sources quoting the same slogans word for word, you know they got them from a press release. I don't know the source of the release, but I'm guessing the WDM (World Development Movement) was involved because all the articles I’ve linked to all cite the same WDM figures on how climate change will affect the Third World.

And have any of these “reporters” actually checked the statistics quoted with another source? Of course not. They’ve just cut and pasted them, framed by hedge-your-bets phrasing like “Figures released by the WDM claim...” and “According to the World Development Movement...” It’s usually good journalism to state the source of any numbers you’re quoting, but in this instance the source is only being named in order to let the reporter duck responsibility for checking those numbers by giving them the status of a quote. Handy for the reporter, useless for the reader.

It’s also highly disingenuous. Isolating one piece of information and flagging it up as coming from the WDM implies that the rest of your article wasn’t drawn from a press release, although similarities across all the articles I’ve linked to makes it obvious that they all had a common source and none of them are using any original reporting.

It would be interesting to find out whether the spelling mistake in the Times piece (“Hoo Pennisula”) appeared in the original press release, or whether it was introduced by the Times. It doesn’t appear in any of the other articles I’ve found about the Mili-band, but that may be because those articles were actually spell-checked.

I should point out that Robin Henry does appear to have put in a brief call to another source: Kent Police, who confirmed that the demonstration passed peacefully. After the G20 protests, it’s astonishing that anyone believes the police can be trusted to give an accurate account of what happened at a protest.