Note to BBC: never report incorrect facts


Such is the importance of journalism in our society, it seems appropriate for my first post to be a warning. A warning that journalism, in essence, is about reporting truths (read Flat Earth News by Nick Davies for a deeper insight into this idea) and that, to do so, journalists must therefore deal in facts. To deal in anything else means those consuming the news are not informed properly and are not given the full picture.

Police Line

It may seem an obvious idea but even the BBC should take heed. At the start of August I was on work experience at the St Albans and Harpenden Review (a Newsquest title). On my second day, reports emerged that there had been two deaths at a home in a nearby leafy village called Wheathampstead. The Daily Mail had somehow beaten the local papers to it with a detailed story so I went with a reporter to the house to do an online report from the scene and a video podcast about the deaths and the area.

Unsurprisingly, the national media was there in force. The circumstances of the deaths (the severely disabled daughter was reported to have died some time after her mother and carer died of a heart attack) were not only newsworthy in their own right but had the further angle of the local authorities reportedly neglecting the needs of the pair before they died. BBC News, Channel 4, ITN, Heart Radio and more all turned up to cover the story.

However – and this is where the importance of facts comes in – BBC News presumed that the Daily Mail article, published that morning, was correct. Without checking, they took everything as 100% fact. Throughout the day, the reporter did various pieces to camera, each time explaining that ’56 year old mother Stephania Wolf had died leaving her 29 year old daughter to fend for herself’.

Only when the Hertfordshire Police press officer turned up did it emerge that Ms Wolf was in fact believed to be over 65 years old. The Channel 4 producer told me they had realised the BBC’s mistake after looking her up on the electoral roll, which had her in the over-65 category. A simple check was all it took.

Very quickly the BBC reporter changed her story and, for the remainder of the day, told how 67-year-old Ms Wolf had neglected offers of help from the local health services. No mention of the deceased being 11 years older than first thought, or of an apology to viewers for misrepresenting the facts. And all swept under the carpet as if nothing had happened.

So, let this be a lesson to those reading who want to be journalists. Be vigilant, double check and, most importantly, report facts; not just what you believe to be ‘fact’.

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About benwhitelaw
Ben is Communities Editor at The Times

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