Fox (n): carnivore of genus vulpes; crafty person; scavenger; (vb) to confuse; -ed (adj): to be drunk.
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Tuesday 4 October 2011

How journalism works, part 74.

JOURNALISM is one of those trades where everyone thinks they know how it works, and most people haven't a clue.

That's why journalists in TV dramas are always sleazebucket liars in grubby macs hounding the recently-bereaved and wilfully printing untruths while never taking the lid off their biro. When doctors, policemen or any other profession is written into a script someone has to check whether you really would use a defibrillator or make an arrest; no-one bothers when it comes to hacks, as everyone reckons they know how Fleet Street works because they've seen it on the telly.

Well, I've seen Bruce Forsyth on the telly and I still don't know how he works. A system of cogs and pulleys, I imagine.

So for the sake of clarity I'm going to explain why several newspaper websites, bloggers and tweeting journalists (myself included) wrongly said Amanda Knox had lost her appeal against her conviction for the murder of Meredith Kercher.

We're human.

And that's about it, I'm afraid. If you want a more detailed explanation I could point out that the verdict was delivered shortly before 9pm, a good while after almost every national newspaper should have gone to print. They each held back their first editions purely to get the news on their front page, a move which costs tens of thousands of pounds an hour because you have to pay printers to hang about and then work late, and overtime for the delivery drivers who then spend hours transporting those papers all over the country so they're in your newsagents' by 6am (an awful lot of work goes into that, so please don't just stand there, read it for free and put it back down with its pages all in a mess). Every daily newspaper editor in Fleet Street was biting their nails waiting for that verdict, every newsroom was tenser than normal which means very, and every hack was staring at the telly willing it to happen faster so they could get on with the job in hand.

When the verdict arrived, those people had mere minutes to get the words on the page, subbed, the picture edited and sent to the printers' where the press was humming. They did not have the luxury to wait for a reporter in the court to file copy and reaction - that would have to wait for later editions. Instead they will all have had two front pages laid out, one with a 'Knox free' and one with a 'Knox jailed' story, probably the same space for a picture to be slotted into and two versions of what a reporter imagined might happen, grasping at the obvious details about people looking stunned and using previously-cleared or uttered quotes from the lawyers. Once the verdict came through, the right version would be subbed while having new copy filed over the phone from the court dropped into it, so there could be fresh, expanded quotes from the legal teams and extra colour from the courtroom.

Both versions of the holding copy are pretty much the same, except for the top six pars. They change more as the minutes tick and the reporter gets more reaction to file from the scene.

But there were two extra dimensions to this story which naffed it up for the hacks. The first is that the verdict was in a foreign language which even the best of us have only enough knowledge of to ask for a copy of the receipt (I can do this in six languages, last time I counted) and the second is Twitter. If you follow the right people news is broken there before anywhere else, giving you a few minutes more to get ahead of your rivals.

And being first is one of the things journalists really care about, because first means more readers, sales, advertising and money to spend on drink at the Christmas party. The Reader doesn't care who's first, but we do because it means our jobs are safe for another week or so. Despite 24-hour rolling news coverage and the internet getting new readers means breaking the news on Twitter, where last night millions of us were ghoulishly waiting for the verdict. 

But journalists, like everyone else, were also watching Twitter and Sky News, which is generally quicker than the Beeb. The Sky translator said: "Amanda Knox is guilty" and all those fingers hovering over the 'send' button on a keyboard clicked as one.

Several newspaper websites including The Groaner, the Daily Wail and The Scum did the same, as well as the Sky news ticker, and their readers hit the retweet button. Within 30 seconds it was quite apparent she was guilty only of defamation and we'd dropped a bollock. Everybody deleted their tweets, made the position clear, and started again. The worst offender was the Wail website where some poor sod has had their arse handed to them in a bag this morning after hitting 'send' on the 'guilty' copy which had been filed earlier that afternoon, again in an effort to be first.

The story, which had barely any quotes in it and those which it did were short and apparently pre-agreed with prosecutors by a reporter on the ground, was online we are told for all of 90 seconds. But that was long enough for someone to get a screengrab and start up a right-on internet frenzy about terrible journalism.

Well, no. It was normal journalism, which you'd never have got to see if someone hadn't been so keen on being first to publish. For once being slow brought rewards because the Beeb got it right and the newsrooms, which will have all started subbing their 'guilty' copy, had the chance to pull it out and put the 'not guilty' version in before the presses ran.

The internet is glorious because it means if you do make a mistake you can claw it back in a way you can't with a printed newspaper. But it also means that even if you're wrong for only a minute and a half an awful lot of people might get to hear about it and you end up trending on Twitter.

The moaning about the Wail story today is nothing to do with a genuine deconstruction of its journalism and just another way for everyone who hates that newspaper to claim they were right. It's as narrow-minded as Nick Griffin waving a copy of the Daily Distress around saying "See? I told you it was all the immigrants' fault!"

It could, in fact, have been any newspaper website which made the same mistake, and just about any journo. I feel for whoever was to blame but hope they take some comfort from the fact that when The Editor is told it sparked a spoof trend on Twitter he won't know what the hell they're on about.

And I'm sure our brief errors won't make a damn bit of difference to either Amanda Knox or Meredith Kercher's family, all of whom were subject to far graver mistakes and bad decisions. Most journos do their best, most of the time, but when we naff it up we tend to get it in the neck more than, say, Italian forensic investigators. Ninety seconds doesn't really compare to four years, now does it?

I do have a grubby mac as it happens, but only because I drop crumbs on my keyboard.