So last week I was working at the Surrey Advertiser, the usual work placement round of sitting in court (of which more later), taking calls, calling people for quotes and stats and, of course, rewriting press releases.
I sifted through a number of these, typing up a couple of hundred words about pollution free ponds, or local birdwatchers, calling a leading light at the heart of Surrey’s LGBT community, or taking a quote from a charity worker and amateur photographer who was “rather pleased” to find his picture had been “found worthy” of a small prize. Not exactly the most rip-roaring sound-bite of the week, but definitely the most human and unplanned.
But dealing with one press-release did actually affect me. Not necessarily because of the subject matter, heartwarming though it may appear (especially when presented with a cosy picture in it’s final setting). What actually made me sit back and reconsider my job, and prospective career, was the response when I phoned up a charity on the off-chance they could give me a little quote, a cheery snapshot of endorsement or a little disclaimer to add balance to an otherwise saccharine community story.
The charity in question was the Scoliosis Association UK (SAUK), a very small but dedicated team who work hard to help people cope with what can be a very challenging, very serious and debilitating illness. I was looking to add balance to a press release that I had received just as I was leaving the evening before. It was from a clinic that claimed it had what could almost be seen as a ‘wonder cure’ for scoliosis, a very serious and life-altering claim, if it can be proved to be true. I had spent a bit of time that morning writing up the piece, and had sent out emails to both the clinic and the charity requesting some quotes and some further information.
Due to an email mix up, I had not found the reply from SAUK, but tried calling them up instead. The very terse reply I received was to go and check my emails again. I did, explained my case and, awaiting a reply, I got on with other work. Deadline approaching, I called again, and was once again answered by a harassed and annoyed sounding lady, who seemed very upset that I had not left more time for my enquiries.
Explaining my deadline issues, and the need to work within the parameters of a feelgood story, I managed to coax a quote to balance the article. I also received a long explanation of how irresponsible I had been leaving it to the last minute, and the importance of balancing this press release, from a company that are making a big publicity push on claims that have yet to be proved by medical research (and are very unwilling to cooperate, which immediately makes you question the whole business).
I then had two minutes to shoehorn quotes into my article, almost physically shaking simply because I didn’t want to mislead any scoliosis sufferers into quitting NHS treatment for an unproven practice. I managed it, adding an SAUK web address for good measure and ignoring the clinics repeated requests for their contact details to be included. All part of the game, right?
Anyway, I hope that all turns out right. I realise that the journalism business is meant to be hard-nosed and all, but a small but significant part of me hopes it can make a difference and, just as importantly, it can’t do any harm. I also hoped that the charity’s quotes, obviously tacked on as they were, make it past the subs in one piece.
I suppose I should reflect on the lessons I’ve learned from this.
Firstly, and this isn’t really learned but simply reinforced once more; never take anything on trust, make sure you check up and chase up facts. And make sure you check your emails thoroughly, to avoid anything slipping through.
Secondly; chase any contacts or leads you’ve been given, just one thing could change a story.
Thirdly; I should really pay more attention to time, and especially deadlines. This could have been a much better, and better balanced, story if I’d got it done just ten minutes earlier.
Luckily, the quotes made it into the final print. Faith restored, for now.