Third Voice: Don't let the media get away with poor journalism

Mike Jempson, director of Mediawise, www.mediawise.org.uk

Nick Cater had some kind words to say about MediaWise in his recent column (Third Sector, 5 April), but thereby hangs an irony. As a charity that takes on the media when things go wrong for others, we rarely receive much coverage.

The way some issues are handled in tabloid style puts many sector groups off working with the media. Other are loath to complain about unfair or inaccurate coverage for fear of upsetting relationships with journalists or risking a media backlash.

In our experience as a media ethics charity run by journalists, no good comes from 'letting them get away with it'. Complaining to editors or to the regulators may seem tortuous and time-consuming, but it can help all sides ameliorate the risk of unforeseen harm in the future.

Journalists often assume everyone wants publicity and anyone who refuses it has something to hide. It is their job to ask questions, but there is no obligation to reply or comply with their demands.

We badgered the PCC about unfair, inflammatory coverage of asylum-seekers and refugees, and encouraged charities concerned with the issue to do likewise. In 2003 a guidance note was issued to editors about inaccurate stories. It did not solve the problem, but it put them on notice.

Having handled complaints from transgender people, we were pleased that the editors' code was modified in May 2005 to include gender discrimination after the Press for Change campaign.

We first proposed changes to the editors' code about suicide coverage seven years ago on behalf of relatives of people who had killed themselves.

Samaritans has taken up the issue and, in a recent ruling that three national dailies had not breached the editors' code by publishing pictures of a woman jumping to her death, the PCC admitted the code may need reworking.

We act as a buffer for groups nervous of challenging the media head-on.

By analysing complaints and gathering evidence about the consequences of poor journalism, we have been able to develop strategies, guidelines and training to improve coverage of problematic issues that are now in use internationally.

Our aim is to promote best practice in journalism, and that may require some hard knocks - something that comes as second nature to the media and to MediaWise.

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