When Sky News special correspondent Alex Crawford was filming a documentary on the illegal plastics market in Kenya, she received a tip-off about an illegal plastic bags factory in Nairobi. Her team rushed to the address, accompanied by security to protect them against these potentially armed criminals.
She banged on the metal entrance, blood pulsing through her veins. As soon as the gate opened, the crew marched in, demanding to see the illegal plastic bags.
All they could find though were perfectly legal plastic pipes. They got it completely wrong - wrong place, wrong time, wrong company. They had bad information.
We have to guard our independence fiercely and defend our objectivity.
Despite the embarrassment, the journalists decided to include the footage of the fiasco in the documentary.
"What we want is to convince our viewers that we are real," said Crawford about her efforts to bring transparency back into reporting in her closing keynote speech at the Newsrewired conference.
"In a world where everything is questioned and doubted, we have to guard our independence fiercely and defend our objectivity."
There is a big difference between a genuine mistake and manipulation. The industry has reached a point when no matter how much fact-checking and cross-checking goes into an article, any social media user can point the finger at legitimate journalism and call it ‘fake news’.
Mistakes vs. dishonesty
Crawford is a well-known face at Sky, having worked in Turkey, and ran the Sky News bureau in South Africa, the Gulf, and India. She started her career as a reporter in a small local newspaper, Wokingham Times, in South England. Even there, she quickly had to embrace the wrath of readers when her filed copy included typos.
"Sometimes it felt like every one of those 13,000 readers telephoned to complain or comment about my writing, my choice of story, what I missed, what I got wrong, about my spelling," she says. This was the reality of being a reporter in a small town where you bumped into your readers in a pub or while doing your errands.
"They felt like they owned you," adds Crawford, "and they were right. There was a high price for getting it wrong, largely in face-to-face humiliation. No one wanted to get it wrong. But we did get it wrong. And when we did, we held our hands up and there was an excruciating apology in the newspaper.
"Journalists do get it wrong, we are human," she continued. "We do make mistakes but this is not fake news. Journalism isn’t easy and we often deal with people who are not telling the truth. But we can't let the whole furore over claims that the entire mainstream media are somehow involved in a conspiracy to disseminate fake news stop us from admitting our errors. But there is a danger that this will happen.”
It is not all about the public though, the journalism industry has also changed over the decades. Copies we fill in are no longer reviewed in detail before they go to print - when news breaks journalists often report it live on Twitter.
And with the speed often come more errors. When Crawford was covering the murder trial of the South African Paralympian Oscar Pistorius, she was so focused on speed and accuracy that the occasional typo in her live tweets did not matter to her. But it did matter to the viewers of the 24/7 news channel who were complaining about her spelling to the editor.
We need to fight for our industry and the good name of our profession.
But, just like journalists are not seeking to intentionally misspell, very few seek to intentionally mislead. And when that happens, like in the case of BBC journalist Martin Bashir who cheated to secure the famous interview with Princess Diana, the reputational damage to the media industry is immeasurable.
Crawford said that while Bashir’s behaviour was unacceptable, the cover-up by the BBC was even worse. The scandal emboldened the "BBC haters" who launched a vicious attack on the broadcaster, disregarding hundreds of honest and committed journalists.
"If we can't see and point out the difference [between mistakes and dishonesty], how can we expect our viewers or readers to?"
Regaining the trust
Whatever the backlash and conspiracies, most journalists spend their careers strongly committed to the truth, accuracy and honesty.
Unfortunately, social media is both a magnifying glass and an amplifier when it comes to slip-ups, so journalists need to bring transparency back as their top value.
For this reason, Crawford and her team created a documentary series called Hotspots: On The Front Line where two reporters show the bare reality of working on the ground to those who doubt the authenticity of the news. The documentary on illegal plastic in Kenya was part of this series.
"I want a call to arms at the time we need to fight for our industry and the good name of our profession.
"And most of all, we need to make sure we get it right and do that in the most transparent and authentic way possible."
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