Media monitoring report
Royal Mail and the Communication Workers’ Union (CWU) have been in a protracted dispute over pay, jobs and working conditions. CWU threatened to call for national strike. If a national strike does take place, it will cost the British government ￡1.5b; about 9.2m people who will file their tax returns by post will be affected; the company risks losing more clients besides Amazon; small businesses will find themselves in trouble for failing to deliver goods to customers; and an estimated backlog of 30m letters and parcels will build up in the company’s sorting offices. This issue has become one with such vital public importance that all types of media including newspapers, radio, TV and online websites have been covering it on a daily basis. Different types of media, however, used different ways in their reporting. This paper studied the news reporting of this issue on newspaper The Times, BBC TV and website The Guardian, examining how they approached the story, how they moved it along, what kind of languages they used, whom they interviewed, etc. Apart from that, this paper made comparisons of news coverage on the three media. News reporting monitoring lasted for three days from 15 October 2009 to 17 October 2009.
On 15 October 2009, the news Post union set to call national strike didn’t appear until page 11 in The Times newspaper, which verified Walter’s point that “(strike) issues are rarely in the headlines, barely in the leading paragraphs, and sometimes not even mentioned anywhere.” (Walter, 1999)1 In fact, the CWU did announce a national strike late that afternoon, but due to publishing deadline, The Times could not wait until the announcement was made. The reporting on 15 October was a typical newspaper story because two-thirds of its content talked about what had happened on 14 October: Prime Minister Gordon Brown called a national strike “unnecessary”, Royal Mail’s spokesman criticising the CWU’s peace offer a list of threats and demands, and MPs’ early day motion designed to eliminate the threat of industrial action, etc. The story was a second-hand editing work rather than an original piece written by its journalists.
The reporting on 16 October did not change much. Again, it appeared on page 11 and took about half of the page. There was no first-hand interview. After a summary on the previous day’s announcement, the story moved on to a program aired on BBC Newsnight on 15 October: Royal Mail aims to sideline union to enforce change.
Without any obvious progress the next day, the story made its way onto the frontpage of The Times on 17 October. The reason was simple. The newspaper got an interview with Billy Hayes, the CWU’s leader. The interview took the bottom one-third of the frontpage and continued on the whole page 14. Mr. Hayes expressed his non-compromising attitude and hinted further strikes should their demands not satisfied. Through this interview, the reporting now started to look at what further damages there could be if no agreement was reached between the company and the union. It was worth noticing that the story on 15 October was written by Robin Pagnamenia, but David Sanderson wrote the story on 16 October. The interview on 17 October was written by David Sanderson and Tom Baldwin, which might because the story must be worked out before the publishing deadline.
A big restriction for newspapers in news reporting, publishing on deadline is not a problem for websites. Shortly after the CWU’s national strike announcement on 15 October, The Guardian website published the story in full details. It included the CWU’s national strike plan, Royal Mail’s reaction, Post-watch, the postal broker’s estimation of backlog of mails, the business secretary Lord Mandelson’s comments, and reaction from a Royal Mail client, eBay. With a few lines on the background of the dispute, this original online story was rather complete.
Nevertheless, the story did not end there on 15 October. Late on that day, The Guardian was shown a 10-page document leaked from Royal Mail titled Dispute: Strategic Overview. Where we are and next steps, and at 22:28, a report about Royal Mail’s plan to enforce changes without the CWU’s agreement was published on its website.
Quick response of the Internet was proved again on 16 October. Mr. Hayes attended BBC Radio 4’s Today program that morning, and his reactions to the disclosed Royal Mail document was published on The Guardian website at 08:51.
On 17 October, based on The Times’ frontpage story, The Guardian website summarised the newspaper’s interview with Mr. Hayes using around 500 words, but at 23:14, it elaborated a story with nearly 1,000 words about Royal Mail’s latest announcement to hire 30,000 temp workers to crush strike. Besides comments from both Royal Mail and the CWU, this report included interviews with the police on their preparation for the coming strike.
Quick response of online news reporting was impressive, and TV was trying to catch up. On 15 October, the union’s announcement of national strike in late afternoon was included in the news headline in the following news reporting. It was delivered in a package, including reaction from Royal Mail’s Operations Director Paul Tolhurst and comment from the business secretary Lord Mandelson. BBC Newsnight also spent nearly 6 minutes on a story about a disclosed document revealing Royal Mail’s intention to sideline the union to enforce changes. More faces were seen on screen and their voices heard such as Vince Tomas, an employment lawyer, and David Coates from The Work Foundation.
On the following day, BBC produced a follow up program on the company’s disclosed document. BBC also invited the CWU’s leader Billy Hayes into its studio, joined by Neil O’brien, director of Policy Exchange and Labour MP Emily Thornberry. This program moved on from the national strike announcement to concerns over the current stalemate.
On 17 October, BBC reported Royal Mail’s plan to hire 30,000 temp staff. The reporting also started to look at the consequences of the national strike which was due in 4 days time. It was obvious that how to break the stalemate between the two sides has been given more time in BBC’s news reporting. City Minister Lord Myners was interviewed, together with Billy Hayes and one MP.
Despite the different nature of newspaper, TV and website, the three media platforms displayed some common points in their news reporting. The national postal strike, having not officially started, was not reported in most other countries, or just given limited space on newspaper and time on TV; however, The Times, BBC and The Guardian website all followed the story closely because this was a local story with great relevance to their audience. They were well aware of the fact that “The closer to home, the more newsworthy it is.” (Hudson and Rowlands, 2007)2 In fact, they tended to make the story big whenever they have got some exclusive information at hand, such as The Times‘ interview with the CWU’s leader Billy Hayes, which became one of the newspaper’s frontpage stories and BBC’s unusually long news reporting of Royal Mail’s disclosed document it obtained. This was quite understandable because such an approach helped strengthen the media’s influence and credibility. Another common point shared by the three media was that they referred to one another quite often in their news coverage. For example, The Time‘s report on 16 October was based on BBC’s Newsnight aired on the previous night, and The Guardian website article on 17 October referred to The Time‘s interview with the CWU’s leader. The third common point lied in the intensive use of quotes as the story unfolded. The reason was obvious: “Quotes bring the story to life, highlight the tensions between the groups of people, tell us exactly what happened, explain its significance, paint a picture, and tell us what might happen next.” (Mckane, 2006)3
The last line “tell us what might happen next” brought forward the first difference in news reporting of the three media. To move along the story, after the announcement of national strike, they all asked the question, what happened next? The angles of updating story became different. On 17 October, BBC looked at the possibility of the two sides sitting back at the negotiation table and what measures could be taken to handle the backlog of letters and parcels, while The Guardian website chose to look at the police’s preparations for the coming national strike.
Not only the angles the media chose were not the same, the way they presented their story was more different. Nearly real-time response was the life of online news reporting. To be the first to tell a story, The Guardian website, on many occasions, chose to simply use texts because creating streamline videos and audios was time- consuming. In the case of postal strike, The Guardian website did not differentiate itself from The Times newspaper in terms of how to present the story. Simply put, they both used texts with pictures. However, The Guardian website outperformed The Times newspaper because from certain perspective, website was a newspaper with unlimited pages, and the hyper-text links made online reading much easier. For example, half way down the article published on 15 October on The Guardian website, there were two highlighted text links. One gave background information about how the dispute between Royal Mail and the CWU started, and the other linked to an article on 8 October title Argos and eBay ready to desert Royal Mail as union votes for strike. In fact, there were a number of in-text links that could direct readers to what they might find interesting, such as “forcing through new working practice”, “Billy Hayes”, “undelivered books from Amazon”, “universal service obligation”, etc. This way of online reporting was not transferable to TV, but BBC excelled both website and newspaper in terms of presenting the story. Take its 15 October reporting for example. In addition to narrating how many postal workers would go on strike on which day, it showed exactly this information on animated envelopes for the audience to see, and of course, its reporting came in video format, with the picture itself conveying a lot of information.
The languages used by the three media were also different. “The key difference in broadcast news is that you are trying to tell a story rather than write a story.” (Thompson, 2008)4 BBC news reporting followed this rule. There were no big words, no ambiguous expressions, and very few long or complicated sentences. Using sound bites also helped in this respect because there was no need to change direct quote into indirect quote or paraphrase it. The Times newspaper and The Guardian website used longer sentences, because unlike TV audience who had to follow the story at exactly the same speed as it was told, newspaper readers and website visitors could interact with the article by choosing which part they wanted to read, or to read first.
To sum up the observations of news reporting on The Times newspaper, BBC TV and The Guardian website, different media outlets have different approaches to news stories and different ways of presenting them. However, the three media outlets also have some similarities in terms of news coverage. In fact, it is hard to label any of them simply as newspaper, TV or website. The Times newspaper and BBC TV also have websites while The Guardian website grows out of The Guardian newspaper. Their mutual-referencing in covering the story of postal strike indicates an obvious trend of media convergence. Newspapers are less capable of attracting readers simply using words. TV is still the main channel where people get news, but more and more people are turning to online for information. It is foreseeable that a new pattern integrating the advantages of the three media will dominate future news reporting.
- Lippman, W. (1999). Public opinion. In: Howard Tumber, News: A Reader. The United States: Oxford University Press Inc., New York, p.8
- Hudson, G. and Rowlands, S. (2007). The broadcast journalism handbook. England: Pearson Education Limited. p.39
- Mckane, A. (2006). News writing. London: SAGE Publications p.117
- Thompson R. (2008). Writing for broadcast journalists. Oxon: Routledge. p.19