My disdain for the local press is perhaps remarkable for someone who willingly chose a career path which will almost certainly see me working in that field. It’s not that I think it’s a poor concept – indeed, localised news is a fantastic resource in many ways, and of great value to many communities. My problem isn’t even with the content, lacking though it often is. I have nothing against totally trivial front page headlines such as “Newport man grows huge tomato” (South Wales Argus). I find leads stories like “Town turned into cake” (from the now-defunct Whitstable Times) quaint and faintly amusing, rather than pathetic or irritating. No, my problem isn’t with the news itself, it’s the lack of care when writing it.
I’ve been on this course for twelve weeks now and it’s fair to say that virtually all of my classmates are competent, intelligent and reasonably sober (during class time, at least). The few blog posts I’ve read so far have been coherent and thoughtful. The emphasis on factual and literacy accuracy in all our lectures has been clear from day one. And yet the expectation is that a good number of us will go on to work in local news, a medium that doesn’t exactly seem to exhibit many of the qualities we’ve so carefully worked towards.
Those who know me will be aware that I have what I shall conservatively refer to as a passing interest in aviation, and have been editing a website on that topic for several years. Each Monday I write a news bulletin of the biggest airshow stories of the week, and that frequently sees me using local news websites. What I find, particularly from the British press, appals me.
Some of the mistakes are simply examples of poor journalism. Essex Live, for instance, reported on a minor incident at the Duxford Battle of Britain Airshow in September. It was a bit of a non-story, really: two planes touched briefly mid-flight and landed safely several minutes later, with one aircraft sustaining a small dent to the leading edge of its tailplane. The images that Essex Live chose to use, however, were of a much larger, more dramatic and altogether more serious accident which had occurred more than two months previously, showing a crumpled and twisted warbird on its belly in a in a corn field. The Cambridge News, meanwhile, mistakenly identified one of the aircraft involved as a P-52, which doesn’t exist, while reporting on the same incident. And yes, the latter is a minor technicality, but it’s still bad journalism.
But some local news outlets consistently go beyond bad journalism and enter the realms of bad English as well. The worst culprits I can find are the East Anglian Daily Times. In their article entitled "Huge crowds delighted by daredevil flying at Clacton Air Show", which included probably the least interesting airshow photos I’ve ever seen, I counted no fewer than five errors in the captions alone. The worst offence is the word “parashoot” (parachute) – a glaring spelling error which is surely inexcusable for any trained journalist to submit, and indefensible for his editors to fail to correct. Other mistakes are unbelievably basic - missing capital letters, for instance - and clearly no style guide was referred to as over the course of the week the EADT couldn’t decide whether to refer to the P-51D Mustang as the P-51, P51, P51d or p51, instead choosing to change designation randomly (usually mid-article) like an iPod on shuffle mode.
Maybe I’m nit-picking. Maybe I just happen to have a technically complex area of interest that few others fully understand or care about. Perhaps I'm tarnishing an entire industry with one very broad brush. But there remains no excuse for blatant and simple errors like misspelt words and erroneous capital letters. Neither are mistakes I’d expect from the ammateurs who write for my website, and even less so from my peers at the CfJ – particularly if they were under the guidance of an editorial team – so why are the so-called professionals getting away with it? And how can anyone who has been through even a tenth of the selection and training processes we’ll face ever be that incompetent? Will we be part of a new generation of reporters who will be able to restore the virtue of the local press? I certainly hope so.