(Update: As well as the blog below, please see an additional follow up piece based on new reports)
I don’t have much to say about George’s accident last Thursday, other than to wish him a speedy and full recovery. I do, however, have something to say about the quality of news reporting that has accompanied it. In short, it’s been pretty damn weak.
Most news organisations clearly do almost no fact-checking before making their reports; and most don’t even use common sense. Rather, they just cut and paste from other articles they find on-line without question, without thought, and with regard for the truth. For example, five days after the accident, almost no TV station or newspaper had any idea whether George was still in hospital or whether he’d been discharged. In fact, most news organisations were reporting (incorrectly) that he’d been discharged. This isn’t a difficult to thing to figure out.
Today, The Sun newspaper ran a story based on an exclusive interview with a key witness to George’s accident. This was the first real piece of journalism on the events of last Thursday evening, and yet they kinda screwed it up (you can read the article if you haven’t already). How did they screw it up? Here’s how…
First, they used a tasteless headline, “Scrape me up before you go slow.” There are times when witty puns in headlines make good copy. This wasn’t one of those times. It was obviously a serious incident: anyone that believed the official line of “superficial cuts and bruises” given out last week was rather naive. Apart from anything else, you don’t get air-lifted to a special trauma unit for superficial cuts and bruises. So, making light of the incident isn’t appropriate. Not only isn’t it appropriate, though – the journalists actually weakened the impact of their own story by taking this tone. They broke a major story here, but much of the impact was lost because they treated it as a joke.
Second, they didn’t major on the personal testimony of their key eye-witness. They managed to secure an exclusive interview with a genuinely important eye-witness. What did they do with that opportunity? They focussed on her hearsay testimony, and made no attempt to verify that testimony. That is, they majored on aspects of the incident about which the eye-witness could not possibly have any personal knowledge. The headline quote from her that they ran with was:
I saw George Michael fall out of a 70mph car…
Did she see that? How could she know the speed that George’s Range Rover was travelling at? The answer is she has absolutely no way of knowing the speed. How could she know he fell out of the car? Well, it turns out she doesn’t personally know that either. She was explicitly quoted as saying,
I thought someone had run across the road and been hit
Think about what that means for a second. It means she didn’t see the car door open, and George fall out of the car. He might or might not have, but the eye witness didn’t see it. That means, by definition, that she has no way of even beginning to estimate the speed the Range Rover was travelling at if George did fall from the car. Yet the journalists accepted all this without question. This weakens the impact of the story because it makes it looks as if they have no interest in discovering the truth of what happened.
Then, the other major piece of information they ran with in the article:
“He tried to open the car door and shut it again because it wasn’t shut properly and apparently fell out at 70mph.”
Did he? How could she personally know that? The answer, of course, is that she couldn’t and doesn’t know that’s what happened. She says she was told that by someone else. However, she might have misheard them; or the other person might have not known what happened either. Yet the journalists accepted this without question. Again, it makes it look as if they have no interest in discovering the truth about what happened.
Now, I’m not saying that all this isn’t what happened. It very well might have been. The Sun might have everything 100% correct. In fact, the witness might have seen even more than can be inferred from the story in the paper. What I am saying is, though, is that based on the evidence presented, the eye-witness does not personally know all these things happened. That means these parts of her story are the parts that are most likely to be incorrect. So, why major on these without question or verification?
For sure this article moved the story on, so credit to The Sun for that. However, the article raises many more questions than it answers. What questions? Well, I’m not going to do the job of the journalists for them by answering that. I just don’t know why they didn’t ask those questions, and why they didn’t try to find out the answers. It was in their own interest to do that.
It’s also interesting that it seems the eyewitness has sold her story and done photo shoots for the national media via this organisation that specialises in selling stories to the press – South Beds News Agency. No reason she shouldn’t make some money. It may, however, devalue the testimony if you’re getting paid to say or agree with things that newspapers will want to buy.
This morning (Wednesday) the eye witness gave a radio interview on the BBC. It’s clear from this interview that I was entirely right in the blog. She didn’t see George fall out of the car. The first she saw of the incident was a man lying in the road. As I wrote in the blog, The Sun decided to focus on things she didn’t see more than on things she did to make the story more “interesting”. You can listen to the radio interview here (2 hours 31 minutes 45 seconds in).
This afternoon (Wednesday) a BBC TV interview with the eyewitness.