Local journalism’s vaccine challenge

The short version: When racist comments flooded threads underneath Black Lives Matter protests stories on Facebook, some newsrooms felt they had no choice but to stop posting those stories on social media. With 1 in 4 of the population said to be unsure about the Covid-19 vaccine, newsrooms are taking a different approach – using facts to dispel fear, and allowing people the space to express their concerns. We’re here to inform the public, not police public debate.

Over the summer, I heard from an editor I work with who had some grim news: Their newsroom had taken the decision not to post stories about Black Lives Matter protests in their area, on Facebook.

The reason? The volume of racist, abusive (and frequently both) comments being posted under stories about people showing solidarity for a movement which gained worldwide momentum in a matter of weeks. It was clear many weren’t even reading the articles before venting. How do you rationalise with people for whom racism is something they are happy to literally put their name and face to?

It was a sobering moment. Like many publishers, Facebook is an important source of audience for this newsroom. But more worrying was the fact that for many people, Facebook is their primary source of news – so if they aren’t reading about local protests from Black Lives Matter from us on Facebook, are they reading about it at all?

Local newspapers have long not only spoken truth to power, but truth to readers too. Sometimes, that can be an unpleasant experience – but when does that become too much for the journalists involved? We had to consider the duty of care we have to the journalists whose job it is to oversee social media activity, and report back to the newsroom as the voice of the reader – what was coming back from a small number of readers was just too much.`

How to solve this problem?

There are ways around the commenting problem on social media. Facebook groups, if run by us, allow us to share information and control which posts have comments on them – but at the expense of a wider audience seeing the story as presented by us – thus limiting its impact and reach.

Other editors suggested Facebook empower publishers to determine which posts made by brands had comments or not – Facebook have said they would look at this. Indeed, Twitter has now introduced such a function.

But given that success (ie visibility) on Facebook relies on engagement of previous posts, such a move would have unintended consequences.

Many big brands use agencies to monitor and manage reaction to their social media posts – to protect the brand. That’s great if you’re Pepsi, Sainsbury’s or Persil – social media is a means to a promotional end. The relationship between local publisher and local reader is different – to work, it has to be conversational. Simply deleting comments to curate a thread which represented a brand-safe view of the world feels wrong. And as any savvy social media brand manager will tell you, if you close down an angry conversation on your brand page, it’ll likely just emerge elsewhere – and be far more damaging.

Then, of course, there’s the financial dilemma. How to fund such agencies at a time when local news is financially challenged. Do it in house? Of course – but do we really want to divert resource away from newsgathering to managing conversations?

So to the vaccine debate…

This dilemma for local news has come to the fore in recent weeks as a vaccine for Covid-19 has attracted a lot of attention. It is a good news story – the end is in sight – yet not everyone is convinced. Indeed, the Royal Society for Public Health reported studies which showed 3 in 4 people would take a Covid vaccine, which means 1 in 4 won’t. In the hunt for herd immunity, this is a big deal.

Social media is awash with people who simply have a different version of the truth. When Liam Thorp of the Liverpool Echo presented a two-part article on life currently inside Liverpool Hospital’s ICU wards, one of the reactions suggested we’d hired actors to create the story. If only such budgets existed… But seriously, that isn’t one of the more extreme reactions. Almost daily, reporting of Covid infection rates and deaths are challenged as scare-mongering.

The solution isn’t to remove our stories from social media. Our duty of care to readers, and staff, is to surely to keep giving factually accurate information about the pandemic all the oxygen it can find. A minority of the one-in-four unsure about the Covid vaccine may be true anti-vaxxers, and noisy to boot, but we can’t allow them to shape how we cover the biggest global story of the century. A global story which is intensely local too.

Shooting the messenger

Public sector comms expert Dan Slee asked ‘What the heck are Reach doing’ in the headline in a blog post which looked at commenting activity around vaccine-related content. He noted a lot of anti-vaccine comments below articles from Reach publications in the Midlands, and implied this could even be an intentional move on our part. Worried enough about it to blog about it, not so worried about it as to ask Reach what was going on.

Policing opinion is not what we do

His solution was that Reach should spend more time policing – his word – what people said under our stories when we posted them on Facebook. By his own admission, he has no idea of the level of resource needed to make this happen. I’ll give it a go: A lot, to the point of too much. The only way of doing that would be at the expense of other newsroom activities – ie newsgathering. A surefire way of making sure true anti-vaxxers win is to divert resource from original story-gathering to fighting falsehoods.

It’s not the job of journalists to control the conversation around our work. We didn’t dispatch reporters to the Lonsdale pub in Jesmond when I (briefly) worked on the Journal to ensure people were saying the right things about what they read in the Chronicle or Journal.

The difference between 2004 and 2020 is that we do have much greater visibility of the conversations going on around our work, thanks to social media. As a publisher, Reach puts a greater emphasis on ensuring this debate is heard in the newsroom than any other organisation I’ve encountered. We are informed by it, but not led by it. Challenging it is part of what we do – through journalism. Social media provides a legitimate connection into the (virtual) pub conversations taking place about our work the world over.

A lesson in futility

But even if we did police what appeared under our articles on social media, we’d only be policing a sliver of it. For every time an article is shared on a brand account on Facebook, it is likely shared many times more by individuals in groups, on their feeds, on their own pages. People may disagree with what we are writing, but they can’t change the way we assemble the stories: Based on facts, attempting to inform the public.

(And in most cases, what the policing would say would be little more than: Have you actually read the story? – a prompt Twitter helpfully has added recently)

Dan’s blog post draws a distinction between the lack of anti-vaxxer activity on public body Facebook accounts and those of publishers (and indeed, he draws a distinction between Reach and other publishers – which is simple to explain: Scale and reach of Reach brands means they are seen by more people). Anti-vaxxers don’t tend to go near sources of truth for fear of their views being challenged. In America, it’s easier for Trump diehards to attack CNN than it is the actual ‘authorities’ – we’ve seen that for four years or more now.

No-one likes a know-all, and no-one likes being told they are just wrong, and nobody likes just being deleted. For local journalism to do or be any of those three is a retrograde step – and to that end, my preference during the Black Lives Matter protests to be able to pick and choose which stories we allow comments on within Facebook, falls down here.

The BNP problem

Attempting to silence, or publicly correct, those we believe to be wrong, when they believe they are right does no good. I saw this in the early 2000s with the rise of the BNP in East Lancashire. They were expert at propaganda which ran parallel with the truth so as to be believable:

  • Asian communities being prioritised for regeneration funding in Burnley, was actually an abuse of deprivation data which was being used to prioritise where need more money, first.
  • A former council care home in Blackburn to be used as an asylum seeker centre was the BNP jumping on a Government demand for councils to provide more accommodation for asylum seekers.
  • Plans to recreate Saddam Hussein’s Victory Arch in an Asian part of Blackburn was actually the BNP’s interpretation of a plan to reinvent the area inspired by Rusholme’s Curry Mile, and drew on Blackburn with Darwen Council’s love of odd public art at the time to make it sound plausible.

We tried ignoring the BNP in Burnley at the paper I was working on back then. They used their media blackout as a weapon to support their propaganda that we were part of the multicultural establishment. When we addressed head on their propaganda in Blackburn, we were accused by mainstream political parties of giving them the oxygen of publicity, and blamed for their victory. Neither were true – but what I did learn was the worst thing you can do as a journalist is tell people what to think – as the Lancashire Telegraph saw when it assembled Tony Blair and various other leaders in urging people to reject the BNP in a byelection.

That was a few council elections, after which the BNP somewhat burnt itself out. The vaccine debate is, in many ways, far more important – and local journalism must focus on what it does best.

To function, local journalism needs its readership to be a broad church. Remember one in four people in the UK are unsure about the vaccine at the moment – that’s a lot of people, a lot of readers.

Local journalism will fail if it just closes down worried conversations about a vaccine. Our time is best spent making sure we’re reporting stated science, sharing the facts – and allowing people to come to their own conclusions. Just as we would if it was three in four people who were unsure about the vaccine. Our job isn’t to tell people what it to think, it’s to give them a source of trusted facts and analysis on which to form their own opinions.

We even have an editorial policy on how to report on the vaccine. That’s what the heck we are doing. It’s not easy – and we accept as the messenger, we will always be there to be shot at.

If I was working in public sector comms, I’d be asking myself how I could get involved in the conversations around the fact-based stories journalists are writing, and understanding why such a chunky proportion of the population are worried.

Sadly, at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests, we were unlikely to change the views of people happy to post racist comments next to their face and real name on Facebook. To that end, we risked doing more harm than good. Now, however, when one in four of the population is unsure about a vaccine, we can change minds through fact-based journalism and a determination to listen to readers, rather than police them.

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