Here’s the thing about local journalists – we aren’t just in it for the story, the perfect quote or the front-page byline

By Lucy Stephenson

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(31219934)

I HAD been a reporter for around two-and-a-half years when the biggest story of my career, to date, broke in August 2011.

The day, and weeks, that followed the killings at Victoria Crescent left a lasting impression on all in our small community, including the local journalists like me who covered the story.

And while it may have been the biggest story of my career to date, it is not one I want to have to repeat ever again. But the experience did teach me certain things about the career path I had chosen, and opened my eyes to the true value of local journalism and how we, as local reporters, fit into the community we serve.

Because as I stood on the road outside the homes where those horrific crimes had played out, I saw journalists from national newspapers hound witnesses, bark questions at those clearly in shock having seen first-hand death and brutality on an awful scale and do all that they could to get the most gruesome story they could.

And then one particular member of the UK press turned to me, asked if I was a local journalist, and then bluntly exclaimed ‘wasn’t it a shame the victims weren’t a British family’. The meaning behind his statement was simple – it would have made bigger and better headlines for them if they were.

To this day I have no words to sum up the shock and disgust I felt in response, and still do recalling that incident.

I share this memory now not to provoke any kind of discussion on race nor to hurt or offend anyone by digging up old wounds, but to offer an insight into how some – and I really do mean some and not all – members of the British press operate.

And in doing so I share it as an example of why that moment confirmed for me something I had quickly worked out as a student during work experience – that I was a local journalist through and through.

Because here’s the thing about local journalists – we aren’t just in it for the story, the perfect quote, the name on the front page, the five minutes of glory. Yes, all of those things give us a thrill – given they are in the right circumstances – and to this day – 12-and-a-half years and counting into my JEP career – I still get a great sense of pride seeing my byline on the front page.

But we have to also be in it for the community, for the people we serve, the organisations we engage with, the systems and structures we report on and the institutions we write about. We have no choice – you simply cannot get by as a local journalist, particularly in a place like Jersey, without investing, personally as well as professionally, in these things. It is our community as much as it is anyone else’s, and as a result we want what is best for it.

We have to visit those healthcare professionals we write about, buy from the shops we feature, eat at the restaurants we quote staff from. Our children are taught by the teachers we speak to, within an education system we scrutinise and which is run by officials who we may have to deal with in a personal as well as professional capacity.

And we must also maintain our relationships with contacts and local characters in order to be able to do our jobs well and into the future. There is a saying in the national industry to ‘splash and burn’ – do whatever it takes to get the story, splash it on the front page then move on, without worrying if you’ve burned your contacts along the way because you are unlikely to need them again.

That approach simply doesn’t cut it in local journalism, again especially not in a place like Jersey. It’s also not always morally possible for all journalists to behave this way, hence why I knew I’d never make it as a national reporter.

It is not always an easy balance to strike, and we sometimes have to make decisions in the public interest because it is our job to do so.

Yet all of this is why, once again, I was so disappointed to read recently that there are officials within our government who are so distrustful of the local media that they would blame us for them choosing to not make information public.

According to reports, Health director general Caroline Landon told a hearing of the Public Accounts Committee recently that her department did not intend to publish a key report on its performance because of concerns about ‘sensational’ media reporting.

And she said that officials were worried that media coverage of the report could even stop patients from seeking help.

The conversation about whether or not to publish is, apparently, still ongoing, while the Chief Minister has said he will look into the comments made. He said the report should be released but admitted that some issues around commercial confidentiality, privacy or information around individuals could prevent certain elements from being publicised. It should be noted that health reports of this nature are typically available publicly in other jurisdictions.

I previously challenged ex-government chief executive Charlie Parker on similar comments about the local media, this newspaper in particular. And I quite literally begged him to work with us to ensure our reporting is as informed as it could be. Clearly, however, the message has still not got through.

Now, I do sympathise with Ms Landon and others like her – dealing with the media can be intimidating. And with examples of the kind I started this piece with floating around, coupled with the kind of behaviour we have seen recently with the photographers following Matt Hancock’s poor wife around in the UK, it is true that journalists do not always have the best reputation.

But it is also true that we should not all be tarred with the same brush, especially those of us working within small communities with a proven track record of professionalism, integrity and passion for the places we serve. We also have moral, ethical and legal codes to follow, and go to great pains to do so.

We won’t always get it 100% right – we are only human after all. But we sure as hell will go out of our way, often working long hours, losing sleep and never truly switching off from ‘the job’, to do our very best for our community.

Last week, at around the same time Ms Landon’s comments were being published, this newspaper celebrated its 131st birthday. Today our office sits opposite the building where that first edition was produced all those years ago.

The location is not lost on those of us working to fill the paper today, and nor is the tagline which remains a proud part of the JEP’s history – ‘at the heart of Island life’. We want it to stay that way, for the good of the paper but for the community too.

If only the government would recognise that a little more and make use of the opportunities for professional engagement and communication we offer.

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