Controversial presenter vilified on social media

FEW news stories generate the kind of emotional response we’ve seen this week following the disappearance of young April Jones. The 5-year-old from Machynlleth went missing from near her home on Monday evening. As is becoming the norm, the news spread via the social networks Twitter and Facebook before being reported in news bulletins on radio and television.
Despite the growth of social media, journalists have a major part to play in reporting stories like this – stories which require sensitive, accurate reporting of the facts. Responsible media outlets have a duty of care to their consumers as well as those they feature in their programmes and in their copy; so delays while checks are carried out and details verified are inevitable.
A child missing, feared abducted, is a story the vast majority of the general public find distressing. This was no exception.
It then emerged that April had cerebral palsy and irritable bowel syndrome and was on daily medication, which made the need to locate her even more pressing.
Police appeals were followed by news of a growing band of volunteers helping in the search for the little girl. People from across the UK descended on the rural Welsh location, offering the police practical help and support. The hashtag #FindApril has been trending on Twitter since her disappearance.
As the hours ticked by and concern grew, April’s distraught mother, Coral, gave a press conference. Television and radio carried it live and replayed it in their bulletins.
Her pleas for information leading to the safe return of her daughter were featured on the front pages of newspapers and internet sites across the world.
Journalists get a lot of bad press; sometimes rightly. But they are vital in the relaying of information to the masses when something of this nature happens.
These types of stories are ones many of us in the profession spend our careers hoping we’ll never have to cover. When we do, we strive to get the balance right – which is often very difficult.
No amount of training, discussing and role playing prepares you for your first door step of those affected by tragedy.
But the desire to treat a story like this respectfully, and report it with integrity, is the driving force behind what a good reporter does.
It is such a shame then, that Sky chose to send Kay Burley to Machynlleth today. Burley is no stranger to controversy and today of all days, those involved in the search for April could have done without it.
This morning we learned from police that they were no longer investigating an abduction, but a murder. At a press conference, Dyfed Powys Police confirmed that they had arrested a 46-year-old local man, Mark Bridger, on suspicion of murder. He had previously been held on suspicion of abduction.
They also reiterated their thanks to the hundreds of people who had helped in the search for April in the last four days, but requested they now stand down and allow the professionals to carry out their work.
The press conference happened at a time when many were still out looking for April. Some of those involved in the search, including many family friends and relatives, had been looking for her since she disappeared on Monday evening.
These people were tired, physically, mentally and emotionally. It is little wonder then that the treatment of two of them live on Sky News at 10.36am caused consternation bordering on outrage.
Burley broke the news of the murder investigation to two female volunteers. She told them: “Police have spoken to the family, arr, they don’t expect to find her alive. I’m sorry to have to tell you in circumstances like this. Would you like to say anything or …”
One of the women interrupted and reiterated that she believed April would be found alive. Her companion agreed. Both women repeated the message of so many of the volunteers and supporters over the last four days: “Keep hope alive”.
During the exchange, which lasted just over a minute, Burley asked: “What do you think will happen now?” To which one woman replied they would keep searching. Burley then asked: “How are you feeling?”
Seriously. All those years in broadcasting and she asked a question like that. How on earth are two women in a state of shock supposed to feel? The response of one of them was “numb”; the other put her hand over her mouth.
I didn’t watch the output live, I was alerted to it via Twitter trends – Burley was above April Jones within minutes of the broadcast. A few minutes later YouTube clips were available for all to view.
In a post-Leveson era when journalism is under intense scrutiny and many inside and outside of the profession believe that the culture, practice and most importantly, the ethics of those involved need to be watertight, this kind of broadcast can’t fail to be viewed negatively by the masses.
It was interesting, although unsurprising, to watch the reaction on Twitter. The majority of it was negative, bordering on vitriolic. Many journalists though, find it difficult to criticise another member of “the club”. Some asked those objecting to Burley to look at the context of the piece and watch more than the 1.09 second clip.
I agree. Burley was interviewing Martin Brunt, Sky’s crime correspondent, when the two women went past. It seemed to me that having identified them as people closely associated with the story, Burley was keen to get a reaction to the latest news. One woman intimated that she was aware of the developments, the other clearly wasn’t.
The question is, in a live situation, knowing the sensitivity of the information which was breaking, is it acceptable for a journalist to do what Burley did?
In my mind the answer is unequivocal. No.
Julie Kissick

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About Julie Kissick

I'm a journalist with extensive experience working in radio, television, newspapers and magazines. I've been a manager, broadcaster and content producer for various media outlets including BBC, ITV and Northcliffe Newspaper Group. I have a passion for teaching and learning, social media and football.
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