Online journalists left out in the cold by local government

Hedy Korbee is a journalist with 29 years’ experience in broadcasting. She has worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Global TV, and CTV, among others. In September she moved to Birmingham to study the MA in Online Journalism that I teach, and decided to launch a website covering the biggest story of the year: the budget cuts.

Her experiences of local government here – and of local journalism – have left her incredulous. Since arriving Hedy has attended every council meeting – she notes that reporters from the BBC and ITV regional news do not attend. Her attempts to get responses to stories from elected officials have been met with stonewalling and silence.

This week – after 7 weeks of frustration – she discovered that the council had called a news briefing about their business plan for consultation with the public on how to cut £300 million in spending – and failed to tell her about it, despite the fact that she had repeatedly requested to be kept informed, and was even stood outside the council offices while it was taking place (and asked directly why TV crews were being waved in):

“At first, [the head of news] told me that it wasn’t a news conference but “a small briefing of regional journalists that we know”. [She] described them as five people, “local, traditional journalists” who were on her “automatic invite list”.  She said they were journalists that the press office has been talking to about all aspects of the budget cuts and have “an understanding of the threads of these stories”.

“She also said they were journalists who have talked to Stephen Hughes before and “know where he is coming from”.”

Hedy’s experience isn’t an isolated case. Hyperlocal bloggers frequently complain of being discriminated against by local government officers, being ignored, refused information or left to catch up on stories after council-friendly local newspapers are leaked leads. The most striking example of this was when Ventnor Blog’s Simon Perry was refused access to Newport coroner’s court as either a member of the press or a member of the public. (UPDATE: A further example is provided by this ‘investigation’ into one blogger’s right to film council committee meetings)

On the other side are press offices like Walsall’s, which appear to recognise that the way that blogs use social media allow the council to communicate with larger, more distributed, and different audiences than their print counterparts.

The issues for balanced reporting and public accountability are well illustrated by Hedy’s experience of calling the press office seeking a quote for a story:

“[I] was told that Birmingham councillors are “important people”  (I don’t know what that implies about “the public’s right to know”) and was told to simply write no comment.  The refusal by the press office to deal with us has made it exceedingly difficult to cover all sides of the story on our website.”

In contrast Hedy details her experiences in Canada:

“City Council meetings are considered a valuable source of news and attended by most of the local media and not just two print reporters, as they are in Birmingham.  Interested citizens show up in the gallery to watch.  Council meetings are broadcast live and journalists who can’t attend can watch the proceedings on television along with the general public.

“It is acceptable behaviour to walk up to a politician with your camera rolling and start asking questions which the politician will then answer.  If politicians are reluctant to answer questions they are often “scrummed” and wind up answering anyway.

“When major budget announcements are made by the federal government, politicians at every other level of government, as well as interest groups, hold news conferences to provide reaction.  Quite often, they go to the legislative chamber where the announcement is being made to make themselves more readily available to journalists (and, of course, to spin).”

Have you experienced similar problems as a journalist? Which local authorities deal well with the online media? I’d welcome your comments.

UPDATE: A response from Birmingham City Council comes via email:

“A Birmingham City Council spokesperson said: “We have proven that Birmingham City Council takes blogging and citizen journalism seriously through the launch of the award-winning http://www.birminghamnewsroom.com online press office.””

UPDATE 2 (Dec 16 2010): Sarah Hartley writes on the same problem, quoting some of the above incidents and others, and suggesting press offices confuse size with reach:

“Let the recently published London Online Neighbourhood Networks study enter the debate. It asked users of the citizen-run websites to identify what they regarded as their main source of local news. The result: 63% of respondents identified their local site as their main source.”

UPDATE 3 (Feb 23 2011): Guidance from the Local Government Secretary says that councils should give bloggers the same access as traditional media.

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22 thoughts on “Online journalists left out in the cold by local government

  1. darryl

    Despite my blog being very critical of Greenwich Council, I’ve got decent relations with their press office.

    But the council leadership, however, refuses to deal with online media, and with a single exception, councillors of the governing party don’t contribute to local blogs.

    I’ve had the same experience as Hedy of being the only journalist attending council meetings – that’s why greenwich.co.uk’s editor Rob now goes to every one, because nobody else is doing it.

    Reply
  2. subzeror

    This is a really interesting article. I’m a local government press officer and our small team deals with around 50 media enquiries a week, all from well-established print and broadcasting media. We’re a busy team.

    When we do get enquiries from online media we endeavour to answer them in the same way, but limited resources mean that we can’t always give them the same amount of time.

    Part of the issue is that our leadership team tend to discount online reporting – blogs etc – but place heavy emphasis on established local media, especially our daily newspapers. This means that we also prioritise these as this is what makes the difference to our managers and therefore

    We have built relationships with key local reporters and it is these people who tend to be invited to press briefings and the like, because they have made the effort to understand the issues and are familiar with the council.

    As you can imagine, often these briefings include off the record information to help a reporter understand the wider issues – whilst not adverse to the concept of admitting a local blogger for example, I’m not sure that we could have the same level of trust in them or that they are going to properly understand what is appropriate to cover. Without a few years of journalism training or an astute editor, we could end up in difficult waters.

    Anyone can be on our distribution list for press releases – and we have bloggers, community newsletters and the like on our current list.

    In reference to the comments in the article about how it works in Canada, I do not think it is acceptable to walk up to a politician to ask their opinion about XYZ. Yes – they will get scrummed and answer off the top of their head but this only causes confusion for the readers – our customers – and inaccuracies in articles that have to be corrected. While politicians have to be accountable, it is impossible for them to know the tiniest details about every part of the services they are responsible for and so it is not unreasonable to give them the opportunity to find out more before they respond to questions.

    Again – this is all about building relationships between the reporter and the politician – a relationship which will be mutually beneficial in the long run as it might just be that they are the reporter chosen to give an exclusive to.

    Reply
    1. Paul Bradshaw

      The issue of trust you raise I think is telling, and indicates how judgements are made based on the platform (web) rather than the journalist. The fascinating thing for me about Hedy is that she has more experience than probably any other journalist the council are dealing with (she’s terrific, by the way), and, as her website reports *only* on Birmingham budgeting, a deeper understanding of the area than a general journalist would. The other possibility, of course, is that officials might be intimidated by journalists who have a more rigorous knowledge of the material being briefed on.

      Reply
    2. Paul Bradshaw

      I would also add that Birmingham is an enormous authority that serves over a million people. Can they really only accommodate 5 journalists in a briefing about the loss of thousands of public sector jobs? If this was about capacity then they could announce it and set an upper limit: first come, first served. It clearly isn’t about capacity.

      Reply
    3. Hedy Korbee

      Politicians are elected to serve the people and they should be able and willing to answer questions from anyone — mainstream journalists, online journalists, but most importantly the voters.

      Briefing reporters off the record fell out of fashion years ago, as did rewarding reporters who toe the line by giving them exclusives.

      You indicate that “this is all about building relationships between the reporter and the politician”. It’s not. It’s about building relationships between the politician and the people who elected him or her.

      Birmingham Council is in a financial crisis and is in the process of cutting 7,000 full-time jobs and another 3,000 part-time jobs. The people whose lives will be torn apart by this have every right to expect that Council will engage in modern communication practices by being open, honest, transparent and empathetic.

      Reply
      1. David

        There are three things which jump out at me here.

        The first is the idea that councillors are important people. They are, but so what? They are elected and there to be questioned.

        The second is that the case with Hedy seems to be more of a grey area than the one quoted involving Simon Perry. I always thought members of the public could attend inquests, so refusing him access to an inquest as both a reporter and a member of the public seems to be breaking well established rules.

        Finally, looking at the responses from those working for councils on here, is it a case of having to justify why stretched council press offices should find time to work with bloggers? I’m not saying this is what should have to happen, but surely the value a press office places on the material your produce directly corresponds to the amount of effort they put into dealing with you? Again, I’m not saying that’s right, but is this a case of finding an means to justify the preferred ends?

      2. Paul Bradshaw

        Hedy’s case is indeed greyer than Simon’s, but I do think it betrays a certain mindset. To leave someone literally out in the cold when it would cost you nothing to let them in has nothing to do with resources. Nor does stonewalling, ignoring, and refusing to provide comments for 7 weeks. Their official ‘comment’ to this post (and its anonymity) does nothing to suggest otherwise.

  3. Neil

    Those comments from “subzeror” are a disgrace. I accept that a busy PR team will prioritise queries from journalists with the biggest audience. As a reporter, I’ve been on both ends of that. But to say that “I’m not sure that we could have the same level of trust in them or that they are going to properly understand what is appropriate to cover” is rubbish. Likewise, “I do not think it is acceptable to walk up to a politician to ask their opinion about XYZ”.

    Politicians are elected and accountable to the people. Of course a journalist, blogger, or anyone else for that matter should be allowed to ask them questions. And local government PR people are paid by the taxpayer to serve their interests, not to spin news to a clique of friendly hacks.

    Reply
  4. Vicky Sargent

    Can I recommend a recent study by Networked Neighbourhoods (http://networkedneighbourhoods.com) that looked at three neighbourhood sites in London and concluded that these site ‘serve to enhance the sense of belonging, democratic influence, neighbourliness and involvement in their area’. and, crucially for council officers and elected members, ‘Participants claim more positive attitudes towards public agencies where representatives of those agencies are engaging online’. Work I’ve been involved in with Socitm, the council IT/web management body, shows that councils find social and online media difficult and many have defaulted to blocking staff access to it at work – not a helpful start where officers are keen to engage. Generally speaking there is a huge range of responses by councils to social media, and often by different departments within the same council. Many web teams, for example, are using Twitter, Facebook and contacts with hyperlocal websites extremely effectively to communicate (and discuss!) service disruptions with their residents during the recent snowy weather.

    Reply
    1. Paul Bradshaw

      Thanks – I do think some councils do this particularly well. I notice in Walsall they are particularly interested in the fact that blogs are very well integrated with Facebook, and allow them to reach parts of the population that newspapers and broadcast media do not.

      Reply
  5. cleland thom

    One of the issues here is aluded to in your last sentence, Paul: Have you experienced similar problems as a journalist.

    It comes down to a difficult issue these days: ‘What’s a journalist?’

    Obviously, Hedy, the person mentioned above, is. And Coleen Rooney is (Hmm,).

    But does it follow that any and every citizen journalst and hyperlocal blogger should have the same press facilities as a properly trained, card carrying journo?

    If the answer is ‘yes’, that raises big issues about security – can anyone claiming to be a journalist walk up to a politician without being through the proper Press Card checks?

    And there’s implications for councils – how can they afford to employ enough press officers to cope with the increased demand?

    The public already have a legal right to access council documents etc, and maybe for citizen journalists, that will have to be enough?

    Reply
    1. Paul Bradshaw

      The point is, as you say, that Hedy is a journalist. Simon Perry is a journalist. The only difference is they publish online – and that’s where the discrimination comes in.

      Reply
  6. Desi

    If you check what they are doing in their blog , you will see that it is journalism. And Hedy is a journalist.

    In my point of view, good journalists are not these who build great relations with politician’s PR team. Good journalists are these who can report the truth despite their personal relations with government press officers.

    I think that it’s a matter of time for things to start changing. Online journalists and bloggers are the future of journalism.

    Reply
  7. Louise Bolotin

    We launched Inside the M60 only last Easter but have been fortunate to build a good relationship with Manchester City Council fairly quickly. We had crossed wires early on, when I requested a press pass for the election night results at the town hall and was rejected as a “blogger” – a swift call to the NUJ (of which I’m a member) sorted that out. The union intervened on my behalf and since then the council press team has completely accepted we are a bona fide news site, albeit a smallish one. We have even been given unprecedented access to the council leader, over and above bigger, longer-established news producers.

    Also, we gave a lot of coverage to Greater Manchester Police’s recent #gmp24 tweetathon but we only found out afterwards that the city’s main news producers were briefed beforehand and we weren’t. We recently had the opportunity to take this up with GMP’s press team and they are acknowledging now that they need to focus more on new platforms such as online-only journalism. We are now building a really good relationship here too, so it’s been mostly very good for us when dealing with the authorities in Manchester.

    Such a shame that other public institutions elsewhere are being so awkward – it really doesn’t cast them in a good light, but apart from that it’s incredibly frustrating when you’re just trying to do your job.

    Reply
  8. christheneck

    I suspect that this journalist being online is not the core issue of the problems being encountered.

    In my experience in local government enquiries for basic facts i.e. details of planning applications or minuted decisions for instance were freely (if occasionally slowly) available. There was a culture there that anything that could be in the public domain should be. Minutes on the consideration of confidential reports for instance were made as full as the law allows.

    The problem is that this journalist has the temerity to ask questions.

    Any information requiring an interpretation of an issue by either the Council officer or the journalist was avoided like the plague and would be ignored to avoid the Officer putting their neck on the line, or referred to the PR department. Officers have been severely reprimanded by stating something which, while being bleeding obvious, is not something the Council would like being brought to the public’s attention. The PR department’s role was in my experience primarily not to give information but to judge the potential damage caused by giving information. Their lack of specialist knowledge in any particular area means they erred on the cautious side leading to even less non-confidential information being available to the press and public. Councillors were encouraged to keep their mouths shut for similar reasons. Lack of comment or “No comment” killed stories.

    The depressing upshot was that Council stories in local papers were predominantly cut-and-paste. Journalists would very rarely be found at Council meetings and that seemed to be the way that both parties liked it. I presume this cosy state comes under the heading of “building relationships” subzeror refers to. Dealing with investigative journalists would only take time and give rise to loss of Council (PR) control and more awkward questions. In a PR culture I find it unsurprising that Hedy has encountered these problems.

    Reply
  9. David Higgs

    In many ways, the news practices in North American media outlets leave us standing.

    There are too many cosy relationships between journalists and figures of authority especially at the very top of government.

    This was clearly demonstrated following the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes, when the London media were quite happy to quote an ‘un-named police source’ as the figure who declared that declared Menezes was a terrorist. Such practices are unethical and allow for all sorts of malpractice to take place – without any proper accountability.

    The Telegraph finally exposed the expenses scandal, but there are those who argue that many political journalists were ‘in’ on the way the system was being abused but failed to report it for fear of being blackballed.

    Reply
  10. Sharon

    In many ways, nothing changes. Over the years, freelances have often found it difficult to deal with press offices unless they were known and/or part of a cozy local cabal who didn’t ask too many difficult questions …

    Reply
  11. Adam

    Alas, this is’t just a problem for bloggers/online journalists.

    I was working for a large commercial radio station in Hull not long ago and we frequently had issues with Humberside Police who gave priority to the BBC and local papers. At one point, we got a great exclusive from a whistleblower inside the force and Humberside Police didn’t give us a response…until the BBC started running the story! At which point they were on the phone clearly quite shaken.

    Although they deny it if you ask them, in my experience, press officers from any authority clearly prioritise media outlets, although not, it would seem, using any facts or figures. They just assume ‘larger’ outlets have bigger audiences.

    Reply
  12. Andy Carter

    I am the head of communications for Leeds City Council. I am also a former journalist, so I can see both sides of what I think has been an interesting debate.

    Birmingham is the only local authority bigger than us, and I suspect like them they have a busy press and media office. Ours operates 24 hours a day and we get upwards of 2500 queries a year (and those are only the ones we log). As Cleland highlights earlier, dealing with that kind of demand puts a strain on resources. I’d love to hire additional press officers, but then all you journalists would be writing about ‘more spin doctors for Leeds’ – and quite rightly I’m sure.

    That’s why we have our virtual newsroom on which we publish every snippet of news, information, video, audio, photos and all invites to media/photo calls etc. The site isn’t locked down, content is available via the site, RSS, Twitter and we’ll even email stuff to whoever subscribes (and that includes several people who I think probably aren’t journalists).

    For general things that we’re doing, there’s an open invitation – but there will be occasions when we will organise briefings for specific groups (or individual) reporters; especially when they have been following a particular issue closely over, say, many months or years.

    But, I do recognise the role that bloggers/citizen journalists have to play these days and that many of them should be viewed as bona-fide news gatherers. My advice is to get to know your local council’s press office staff, find out who looks after what issues/portfolios and build a relationship with them. We publish the names/numbers of my press office team.

    I’d like to think that we have a good relationship with Leeds media – and I’d like to hear about it if journalists thought that’s not the case.

    Reply
  13. Pingback: Cuts are already a way of life for Birmingham city council | Andrew Watt - Yachydda is Politically Arguementative and Topical - yachydda.co.uk

  14. Matt

    That’s really bad, but I assume the logic might go something like this: regional TV news – lots of viewers. Local blogger – not as many viewers. Who should the PR’s prioritise? Having said that, there’s no excuse to ignore an important local voice.

    But given that we’re all journalists these days and all have the ability to self-publish, then I’m guessing that brings with it the potential for press officers to get deluged.

    There’s a distinct pecking order based on the number of viewers/readers – a rather ruthless calculus based on percieved influence.

    In regional TV news, you get knocked back all the time because someone somewhere (usually in London) doesn’t regard you as especially important. And so on and so forth.

    You get influence by breaking stories which are then picked up and widely circulated. So when the blog discloses stuff about the council which leads to wider coverage, then the blog starts getting taken more seriously.

    Reply
  15. Pingback: Pickles: Citizen Journalists and Bloggers should be let in to Public Council Meetings

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