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Deciding whether news is in the public interest




How do you decide if a story is in the public interest or not? This site already has a training module on applying the public interest test to journalism, but we have now put together a scenario.It's been published after a request was posted on the Media Helping Media Facebook page for help defining what is meant by the public interest.

Image courtesy of Prensa 420 and released under Creative Commons 

A public interest test scenario

Picture of smoking by Chuck Grimmett released under Creative Commons

Part 1

You are the news editor. The newsdesk receives a tip that the son of the government’s education minister is in trouble with the police. According to the tip, he has been found with marijuana in his possession.

There is a debate currently going on in parliament and the press about whether offenders holding small amounts of marijuana should be prosecuted. The quantity involved in this case is not known.

The minister has not taken sides in the debate. The son is not a public figure and has not previously been the subject of any news stories. He is 24 years old and works as a teacher in a school for children with learning disabilities.

Your first response as a news editor is:

a) to ignore the story as the son is not a public figure.

b) to contact the education minister for a comment.

c) to contact the son for his version of events.

d) to contact the school where he works.

e) to ask the police about the status of their investigation.

f) to contact campaigners who want the drugs laws relaxed.

Answer: Click here to view

Part 2

The police have confirmed that the son was arrested. He has not been charged but police say "enquiries are continuing". Your next step is to:

a) report the facts as known.

b) seek more information from the son, his parent, his friends, colleagues etc.

c) do nothing at this stage – decide to wait for more information to emerge.

d) drop the story.

Answer: Click here to view

Part 3

Your reporters return from making enquiries. The son cannot be contacted. He is not at his home or, apparently, at school. His friends are uncooperative. The education minister’s spokesman has said: "This is a private matter and the minister will be making no comment." The school where the son works refuses to discuss the matter. What do you do next?

a) report the facts as known.

b) look for other people who might know what is going on.

c) do nothing – wait for more information to emerge.

d) drop the story.

Answer: Click here to view

Part 4

Reporters come back with some further insight. The son was a brilliant and popular student. He is single, lives alone, dedicated to his job but with a lively social life. Nobody has seen him in the past few days. The education authority finally says that he is on sick leave. It is aware of the police investigation but the son has not been suspended.

At this point you are under pressure to use your resources on other stories. You have to make a decision. Is it:

a) publish the facts as known.

b) in addition to the facts, speculate on the possible effect on the public and parliamentary debate about drugs.

c) drop the story.

Answer: Click here to view

Summing up - the public interest test

The son is not a public figure. He has not been suspended by the education authority and since they know of his arrest it seems unlikely that he has committed any major offence. You do not want to destroy his career.

The simple fact of his parentage does not make him a public figure, but his arrest for a possible drugs offence, at a time of national debate, might influence his parent.

The fact that he is a teacher and his parent is education minister adds weight to your decision to publish. But perhaps the most important factor in this set of circumstances is the fact that if you do NOT publish, you might be accused of joining in a wall of silence about this young man.

Conclusion: So the responsible course is to publish the facts, neutrally and briefly. It’s not a huge story but it’s one you cannot afford to overlook.

Bob EggingtonBob Eggington has been a journalist since 1969. He began in newspapers before joining the BBC where he worked for almost 30 years, including a spell as the head of the BBC's political and parliamentary unit. He was the project director responsible for launching BBC News Online in 1997. Bob currently works as a media strategy consultant in the UK and overseas.


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