In Lesson 1 we learned that it's important not to worry about asking any questions of your sources - much more professional, and it has the convenient bonus of meaning that you don't have to do as much work. Why make that phone call to question someone when (a) it might upset them, (b) it might involve a re-write and (c) could mean potentially more work having to be done by you? Much easier, then, to completely trust everything you're spoonfed from your trusted sources and print it as if it's the truth - even if you can't verify that or ask questions that might tell a different side of the story.
Let's take that a step further. The example we had in Lesson 1 was a situation in which a desk-chained journo had no chance whatsoever of independently finding out whether what he or she was being told was the truth, and therefore decided to do the right thing: accept what they were told by the military, because they said so.
But we can improve on that. Let's say that there's a source who claims something outrageous and scary. It would make for a good story - if true - but this time you actually have the ability to independently check whether it's true or not. You could ring another source, for example, and see whether this first source is acting within the bounds of sanity or catching the bus from the bonkers side of the street. You could even - and here's really stretching out into the 21st century of technology - do a quick Google to find your source's web page and see whether they are a reliable person or someone who has their own money-making agenda in things being a certain way.
Or... you could do nothing. Because, let's face it, why spoil a good story? If one man says black is white, why check the facts? Why try and find out for yourself? It'll only ruin the story.
So what if you're creating an unjustified climate of fear? So what if you're exploiting families' tragedies to flog a few papers? So what if there really isn't any connection between the things you've connected, other than the say-so of a very dubious source who not only appears woefully misguided, but who also has a money-making agenda in the kind of stuff that props up his flimsy argument? So what if you call him a doctor even though he isn't one? So what?
Turns out that the one source the Express used doesn't have the evidence on which he based his startling claims. And the Express therefore can't have checked it - they just took his word for it. In good faith, possibly, but they didn't check. If you were going to scare people shitless by claiming that suicides were linked to phone masts, would you want to check? Or just take some bloke's word for it?
Some bloke, it turns out, who runs a website offering all sorts of mumbo-jumbo to do with magnetism. He isn't a doctor, either, despite being called Dr Coghill in the story.
Who checked? Who bothered? Who cared?
"Dr" Coghill is described as having "examined" studies "linking" proximity of masts to depression. But we aren't told what these studies are - and I think I'm probably safe in saying they weren't read by the Express hacks who cobbled this together. We aren't told what the conclusions of the studies were - only that "Dr" Coghill thinks that depression and masts are linked.
Typical Express - ratcheting up fear and suspicion. Fear of masts; fear about children. That's so typical as to be almost forgivable - the Express (among many other newspapers) loves striking fear into the hearts of its readers, whether it's about Muslims or health risks.
It's reckless, yes. It's thoughtless, yes. It's irresponsible, yes. But it's more than that: it's demeaning to the lives of those people who have killed themselves in Bridgend. To reduce an individual's life - their suffering, their difficulties, their hopes and fears and frustrations - to a simple bit of electromagnetism is appallingly simplistic.
Yes, the community in Bridgend is looking for answers. But to go blundering around, trampling on the grief and insulting the memories of the dead by pretending there's some overlying cause - based solely on one man's opinion, who turns out to have surprisingly odd views on magnetism and its effects - is a travesty of journalism. It's anti-journalism.
Even more of a disgrace is the fact this story appeared on the front page. Of a national newspaper.
- Lesson 1 of journalism: never ask questions
- Lesson 4 of journalism: We’re the good guys
- Lesson 5 of journalism: Be careful about what stories you report
- Lesson 3 of journalism: be cautious and question things, if it goes against what you want to hear
- Modern journalism: Let’s not bother to fucking check