Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Stop the press...

Stop the press...

Reporters may rank right up there with Ofsted inspectors as the people school and college leaders least want to find on the other end of the telephone. Journalist Paul Hill reveals what makes the media tick and what reporters are really after when they come calling.

What makes a glowing Ofsted report worthy of three lines in a local paper, but a school in special measures worth a page?

Why is an increase in truancy figures more likely to hit page one of a national paper than improvement in pupil attainment?

Is journalism an exercise in cynicism dressed up as a public service?

If school leaders have not pondered over these questions in the past, perhaps now is the time to do so. The reputation of a school can be made or blighted by media coverage - just ask the head of a school branded 'failing'.

In today's media savvy culture, sending a letter home to parents has now become tantamount to sending out a press release. The Freedom of Information Act has given journalists a new tool to probe for stories about life in the classroom, school yard and staff room.

Finally, child protection legislation and public anxiety are changing the way newspapers have traditionally engaged with schools, especially where naming and including pictures of children are concerned.

While appointing a teacher to act as a press officer can help keep tabs on the media, it is no guarantee of improved media relations. One need only look to the two basic ingredients of a journalist's phone call to understand why the press works in the way it does.

Fact or fiction

The first ingredient in a call from a reporter is a need for instant answers.

The sense of urgency reflects the organisation of a newsroom and the process of taking a shorthand note of a conversation and turning it into newsprint.

The second is the reporter's preconceived ideas - he or she usually has an angle in mind before picking up the phone.

By the time the call is made, the journalist will know the answer he or she hopes to get which will work best for the story: an angry denial, the revelation of new facts or figures, gushing praise or an attack on the authorities - whether in Whitehall or town hall.

Of course, if the facts don't fit, the story will change.

Having a preconceived notion of what will make the best story reflects 'news values': journalists' sense of what may or may not grab readers' attention.

Generations of reporters have been trained that the way to write a news story is to think "how would I tell this to someone in a pub" - the only difference between a tabloid and broadsheet being the pub's clientele.

Novelty item

But why are reporters more likely to call when things go wrong than right?

Reporters are looking for novelty - not necessarily in the sense of trivia - but the unexpected, the arresting or controversial.

Take the example of an Ofsted report. A press release saying that a school has done well is saying simply what parents would hope and expect to be the case. A school where performance is either outstandingly good or bad is, therefore, more newsworthy.

When it comes to writing a novel, essay or poem, a line of argument can emerge gradually and plots can twist and turn.

But the opening line of a news story is always the hook to grab readers' attention.

A news story that has no hook - no drama or quirkiness in the opening line - will simply prompt the reader to move on and turn the page.

The least interesting elements of the story are saved until last for the simple reason that the sentences at the end are the first to be cut if the story is too long for its allocated space on the page.

There is no space for thesis, antithesis and synthesis or carefully crafted conclusions. News stories just stop.

The stricture of journalism schools and the Press Complaints Commission - the media's self-regulating body - is that news stories should be 'fair and accurate'.

Journalistic fairness translates as giving an individual or organisation a right to reply to the claims of another rather than giving both sides equal priority in the story.

So a story about a school with an opening line or headline that infuriates a headteacher will nonetheless be deemed fair by an editor if there is a rebuttal or counterpoint somewhere in the following 500 words.

There is, of course, a substantial difference between what national and regional reporters are looking for. Take the grand set piece news event of every summer: exam results.

While national newspapers and broadcasters dust off commentary pieces about dumbing down and whether or not A levels are still the gold standard, the regional media tends to search for positive stories and images that might generate a few extra sales or viewers.

This might be students celebrating at the schools gates, twins with straight As or the prodigies who have won a place at Oxbridge before they have entered their teens.

Regional papers tend to see themselves as part of their community - as occasional champions or advocates for what is good about their town or city - unlike their national counterparts.

Inside the newsroom

However, the way in which national and regional reporters operate is essentially the same. Albeit the technology is different, the organisation of a newsroom today has little changed from the days of Beaverbrook's Express or Northcliffe's Daily Mail 70 years ago.

Once a reporter has written a story, the text is passed to a news editor, who might tweak a word here or there or re-write a line or two.

The news editor then passes the amended story to a sub editor, who again might tweak the text, before thinking of a headline and designing the layout of a page.

The completed page is then read by a different sub editor to weed out any unseen design glitches such as the juxtaposition of stories, images or adverts that might seem ironic or insensitive, as well as grammar and spelling errors. The process takes time.

Sub editors bark at news editors, who bark at reporters, each demanding to know "where's the copy", or the story. The closer the deadline, the louder the barking gets.

Not that there is one deadline. Reporters working for national or regional daily newspapers face a series of deadlines through the working day.

The further inside the paper a story appears, the earlier the news editor and sub editors will want to see the reporter's copy.

On morning papers, deadlines fall in the evening - right up to a 1am deadline for the final version of a front-page story for some of the larger regionals.

Unavailable for comment

For evening newspapers, inside pages tend to be completed the night before publication but the final deadlines fall in the morning, perhaps as early as 9.30am for a first edition.

This means that a head who can't take a call from an evening paper reporter between 8am and 9am may be described as "unavailable for comment" in an article being read by parents at 6pm or later that night.

Deadlines have a further effect on what appears in print. They restrict the time available to find stories. Regular and reliable sources of information - good contacts - are priceless for a reporter. Bland press releases, however worthy, are useless.

Nevertheless, the pressure of deadlines is no excuse for sloppy journalism, inaccuracy or unfairness. The obligation is always on reporters to give a reliable account of what they know. If they fail to do that their readers are badly served.

But reporters are only as good as what they know. That puts the onus on those who take their calls to be open, available for comment and tolerant of reporters' questions, however well or ill-informed.

Paul Hill has 10 years' experience as a journalist. Following two years at the Times Higher Education Supplement, in January 2006 he moved to the Eastern Daily Press as home affairs editor. The opinions expressed in this article are his own.

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