Public interest – scenario

All the scenarios on Media Helping Media are based on real events.

<a href="" target="_new">Image by Heath Alseike</a> released via <a href="" target="_blank">Creative Commons CC BY 2.0</a>
Image by Heath Alseike released via Creative Commons CC BY 2.0

You are a political news editor working for a large public-service broadcaster.

Parliament is debating proposed legislation that would relax laws on recreational drugs and decriminalise possession of small quantities of cannabis for personal use.

This debate is being covered in depth by the media.

A government minister is known for taking a tough stance on such issues. Your reporting team has been covering proceedings and has interviewed him several times.

A story breaks on the news wires claiming that the minister’s adult son has been questioned by police following a drugs raid.

The son is a 24-year-old teacher, working in a school for pupils with special needs. He no longer lives with his parents. He hasn’t featured in the news before.

The same news wires are received by all the national newspapers and broadcasters.

You suspect that some newspapers will go big on the story, and that it will go viral on social media.

How should you respond?

Should you:

  • Assign a reporter to check the details of the wires story with police.
  • Cover the story as set out in the wires report.
  • Continue to cover the debate in parliament, but ignore the information about the son because he is not a public figure.
  • Contact the government minister for a comment.
  • Contact the son for his version of events.
  • Contact the school where he works.
  • Contact campaigners on both sides of the drugs laws argument.

The public interest test

This is one of those stories that is likely to generate great excitement in some news outlets.

They will probably draw comparisons between the son’s behaviour and the minister’s stance on drugs.

Once the story is out, radio and TV chat-show hosts will probably discuss the current legislation going through parliament, mention that the minister’s son has been questioned, and conduct interviews in the street along with phone-ins to try to gauge public opinion.

But is there public interest justification for doing the story in the next news bulletin?

The son is not a public figure. He is a private individual. He hasn’t made any public comments linking him to the current drug debate.

The fact that he has been questioned by police about alleged recreational drug use is probably interesting to the public, but does that mean that it’s in the public interest for you to investigate further?

Would you assign a reporter to dig deeper every time a 24-year-old is questioned by police about drugs?

Or does the fact that this is the minister’s son make a difference?


This story is of interest only because of the relationship between the arrested son and his father, the minister currently discussing legislation regarding drugs.

But it has no public interest purpose. See our module ‘Journalism and the public interest’ – link at the bottom of this scenario.

As a political news editor you would probably want to assign a reporter to talk to the police to find out whether what was contained in the news wires was accurate, but that would be for background research purposes only.

And such background material will help you explain your decision to your line manager, who will no doubt ask you about the story when it breaks on other outlets.

While you might apply the public interest test to your journalism, others might not apply it to theirs.

In such cases, once the story is in the public domain, it could develop, with new angles emerging that change the story, along with people adding their comments and opinions.

You could then come under increasing pressure to cover the story, not just because everyone else is, but because it has moved on from the original facts of the son being questioned.

So the story should be monitored in other media, but picked up with respect to the son only if a public interest angle emerges contingent on that relationship.

In such cases you will need to refer up and talk to senior editorial colleagues.

Related module

Journalism and the public interest