Inflammatory mis-reporting can fan flames of hatred

There have been two national media reports in the past 24 hours that demonstrate how ill-equipped even prestigious and experienced national news media outlets are to report on local stories.

The first was The Guardian’s reports about mixed reactions to the opening of a supermarket in south Liverpool. http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2011/jul/12/tesco-brings-hope-to-toxteth?INTCMP=SRCH More on that in another separate (and no doubt lengthy) blog post.

For now, I want to focus on the lead story on the Today programme (7am July 14) was a fire in an industrial unit in Boston, Lincolnshire. The story made the lead because of reported allegations that the unit was being used as an illegal distillery. The evidence for this claim came in just one quote from a resident stating that Latvians had been buying sacks of a particular type of potato from farmers. That was it. The ensuing coverage centred on claims that there is a ‘problem’ with illegal alcohol in Boston. A senior city councillor responded by saying that although he was aware of a small number of seizures of illegal vodka from a very small number of shops, this was the first he had heard of a ‘problem’.

So in one lead story on one of the most respected news programmes in the UK, we have a story that sets a very clear agenda on spurious as-yet-unconfirmed speculation. The reference to ‘Latvians’ is entirely opinion and not based on any provable fact. The journalists should be mindful that there are tensions in Boston over a perceived influx of European migrant workers. So without the facts to back the claim by the one local resident, the report is inflammatory in more ways than one.

The online version of the story http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-lincolnshire-14146993 is also problematic by referring to an explosion (the ‘official’ cause of the incident from fire crews and police) when nearly residents heard no such bang. Explosion conjures up fears of terrorism and public hazard in fare more resonant ways than a fierce blaze. Perhaps the accounts from ‘official’ sources should have been flagged up as claims rather than facts while investigations are still at a very early stage. Whatever anyone might have been doing in that industrial unit, it seems the threat was greatest to themselves.

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