News Impact Summit puts press ethics under spotlight after Manchester Arena attack

  • Round table discussion between MEN, GMP and 5Live
  • All agree events at Arena had profound effect on way such events are reported

Taking place for the first time outside of London, the News Impact Summit took place at Manchester Town Hall earlier this month. With the event’s theme being ‘The Future of News is Community’, the focal point of the day was the discussion about local media and coverage of the Manchester Arena attack.

Featuring representatives from the Manchester Evening News (MEN), Radio 5 Live and Greater Manchester Police (GMP), the panel began with their overall coverage of the tragedy. Editor-in-chief of the MEN Rob Irvine began by saying that while it was the biggest story that he had to cover in his career, it was important that their coverage was not defined by the bomber but by the people of Manchester.

Particular emphasis was placed on raising money for victims of the attack, with the paper raising more than £1 million for the We Love Manchester emergency fund in the first 24 hours, he said.

Rozina Breen, head of news at Radio 5 Live, said the attack was unprecedented, partly because it was on their patch and targeted young people, but it also came after a big year in news.

She said: “Journalism is a human endeavour”, adding: “all reporting comes back to human stories”.

Rob Irvine said the MEN had 10m people visit their website in the first 24 hours. Seven out of 10 people in Greater Manchester came to their site in the first few days, he said.

Moderator Jen Williams, the paper’s social affairs editor, encapsulated this, saying, “It’s not just people in Manchester reading the MEN anymore.”

Breen said that coverage could not be split into the black and white issue of local and national coverage. Local knowledge is invaluable and she said there should be co-operation rather than competition between local and national outlets.

With people coming to 5Live and MEN to get news of the attack, it was important to get it right. Amanda Coleman, head of corporate communications for GMP, said that while there was a lot of fake news on social media being circulated very quickly, they did not feel the need to respond. Local journalists were largely self-policing.

Breen emphasised the important of strong guidelines, saying that it was not worth damaging 5Live’s reputation to be the first to break the news inaccurately. Irvine also said it was important to slow down, citing rolling news reporting an attack on the Louvre during the Paris attacks solely based on Twitter. One RIP message on Facebook is not enough to justify publication.

Significantly, local publications avoided publishing the photos of the scene from The New York Times, gained from an external leak. Regarding the images, Irvine said the MEN “didn’t use them and don’t intend to,” stating that they did not take the story any further.

When questioned at the time about his decision to publish and how the photos upset the families, NYT editor Dean Baquet said: “Prove it!” Irvine responded by saying that he had spoken to the families and they were upset by the leak and publication.

Breen agreed, saying, “What is the benefit if [the photos] don’t move the story on?” However, 5Live did discuss the story, but in terms of how the leak would affect US and UK relations.

This kind of carefully written and sensitive coverage led to the Chief Constable of GMP writing to the Society of Editors, to thank journalists on behalf families. Coleman said this was in part due to no one wanting to scupper the investigation, with many journalists checking with police that the information they had was correct before publication.

Yet, was there anything the local press could have done better?

In the days after the attack, difficult decisions had to be made. 5Live broadcast appeals from Olivia Campbell’s mother, tearfully asking for anyone with information about her daughter’s whereabouts. Breen said that human stories had to be got right since it was ultimately about a person.

Although it is a difficult thing to do, the station had to make a judgement to stop running the story, as the odds of finding Olivia alive became smaller and smaller.

Rob Irvine was disappointed that lessons were not learnt in Barcelona, with footage of the attack being repeatedly broadcast uncensored. Coverage like this played into the hands of the perpetrators, he said.

One thing everyone on the panel said needed to be improved was the help available for staff following such events.

Williams told a story about interviewing a Red Cross worker and how the attack had affected them psychologically, only to realise that they had surprisingly similar experiences. Meanwhile, Breen questioned what the duty of care was for interviewees and interviewers, saying that some staff at 5Live had doubted their role as journalists following the attack.

She also emphasised the need for journalists to have trauma counselling in the aftermath of such traumatic events.

Similarly, Coleman said that while GMP had increased its emphasis on welfare for police officers over the past six months, many still are not able to talk about their experiences.

When the panel was asked about journalists potentially causing damage by interviewing those affected by an attack, Coleman said that, whilst sensitivity is an important issue, there is an often misunderstood relationship between journalists and victims’ families.

She said that on a weekly basis GMP deals with both the families of murder victims, who do not feel they can to speak to the media, and journalists who are scared to speak to them. While interviews need to be handled carefully, this is also a massive problem for both parties.

While the attack may have taken place nearly six months ago, the panel coincided with GMP making a formal extradition request for Hasham Abedi, who is currently living in Libya. With this and the ongoing trauma of those involved, be they families, emergency services or journalists, the effects from 22 May are clearly going to be long lasting.

This article first appeared in Humanity Hallows