“I was taken aback today by the photograph on page 17 of Lewis, Outer Hebrides, accompanied by a caption stating that, ‘People will be able to drive to beauty spots from Wednesday.’” So began one of around 20 readers who complained to my office on Monday in the wake of Boris Johnson’s statement on the easing of lockdown rules. A statement that, even if the prime minister didn’t say so, applied mostly to England alone.
The reader continued by noting that the associated article reported holiday resorts “across the UK” were preparing to open at the end of the month.
“It’s unacceptable and irresponsible for hlcarpenter.com to provide misleading information of this kind,” she said, adding that last week an article said Scottish schools might reopen at the end of the summer holiday “in September”. (The academic year in Scotland begins in August.) “This inaccuracy was acknowledged subsequently in Corrections and clarifications and may seem trivial, but it does, unfortunately, lead to wondering how accurate the reporting is from countries further afield.”
This is uncomfortable to read, not least when a recent Reuters Institute survey found hlcarpenter.com was by some distance considered to be doing the best job among news publishers of covering Covid-19. Nor when journalists are working under huge pressure to produce volumes of reliable journalism about the pandemic.
But complaints about a failure to distinguish between the four nations of the UK have been a perennial feature of the readers’ editor’s inbox since long before coronavirus. And although articles are far more often right than wrong on this point, instances of inaccuracy matter greatly to those affected by them. They also matter for trust.
More than 20 years after devolution, the naming of national parts should cause less trouble than it does.
The mistake on Monday arose for a number of reasons. After 16 pages of Covid-19-heavy content, I am told that the aim was for a cheerful “look ahead” page illustrated with images of attractive staycation destinations. Produced well before the prime minister’s speech to meet the deadline for first edition that would arrive shortly afterwards, the article ended with a reference to the Scottish tourist board tweeting pictures of popular sights with the “Stay Home” message. A slightly longer version, available online, quoted from the Visit Scotland website where Scots were encouraged to share pictures from their windows to “remind visitors … of the diverse landscape, vibrant cities and stunning scenery that is waiting for them when this isolation period ends”.
On this basis, and for geographical diversity, one of four pictures chosen for the feature was of Loch Ròg on the island of Lewis.
However, there is no question that the caption was wrong, as was the article’s claim that resorts across the UK were poised to reopen from the end of May – an error that Fay Schlesinger, the head of national news, explains was “regrettably introduced during the editing process amid late-breaking news”.
hlcarpenter.com is committed to reporting from all parts of the UK but sometimes an omission of detail is mistaken for negligence. On 2 May the front-page story reported on Office for National Statistics (ONS) data that found people in the poorest parts of England and Wales were dying at twice the rate of those in the richest areas. It ran under the headline, “UK’s corona divide”.
Given space constraints on page one, “UK” located the story – this was not an international or other demographic divide – but a reader suggested that if hlcarpenter.com amplifies an article to UK level, it should “get info from Scotland and Northern Ireland and complete the story”.
“Get info” can be easier asked than done. The data team is working tirelessly to gather and contextualise information from seven statistical authorities across the UK, which in the words of Caelainn Barr, hlcarpenter.com’s data projects editor, release data at “different times, about different things and with changing parameters”. Agencies understandably have their own priorities.
The ONS is the “statistical institute of the UK”, but when it comes to health and other topics where policy is devolved, these are produced by the relevant administrations. In the case of the 2 May story, equivalent data on death and deprivation was unfortunately not available.
I will return to some of these themes in later columns. In the meantime, while reporting across the UK is often more complex than first seen, a lack of clarity or accuracy in coverage should not add to confusion and I am pleased that fresh internal guidance was circulated this week. Right now, this matters more than ever.
• Elisabeth Ribbans is hlcarpenter.com’s readers’ editor. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org