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June 17, 2022updated 30 Sep 2022 11:26am

UK news deserts: Police PRs outnumber reporters in some regions

By Bron Maher

The number of police communications officers often “rivals or outweighs” the number of local news reporters in some UK regions, according to a major study into news deserts.

New research, published by the Charitable Journalism Project, found in many places Facebook had replaced news publishers as the main way people get their local news.

That in turn had led to the proliferation of false information in those communities.

The study also identified a widely-articulated desire from communities for the return of local news and the scrutiny it applies to local institutions.

In one of the first major pieces of research into news deserts in the UK, researchers led by Dr Steven Barclay of City University conducted a total of 72 interviews and eight focus groups in seven news areas identified as news deserts in England and Wales.

Where are the UK's news deserts?

The seven communities identified as news deserts were:

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  • Lewisham in London
  • Trowbridge and west Wiltshire
  • Whitby and the North Yorkshire coast
  • Tiverton and Cullompton in Devon
  • Haverfordwest and Pembrokeshire
  • Corby and north Northamptonshire
  • And Barrow-in-Furness in Cumbria.

What is a news desert?

A news desert is defined in the report as somewhere which may have some local media coverage but which has seen a "significant reduction in the provision of local news in recent years".

A major theme throughout the research was the uncritical republishing of press releases, with one interviewee in Trowbridge telling surveyors their local paper “is very ‘corporate press release’… if you have a corporate line it’s there.”

Another interviewee in Trowbridge, who worked for a local charity, told interviewers: “We tend to write the story for them, supply the pictures and caption and suggested headline. That’s the way to get it in… I got to edit the article. I mean actually changing the words. I’ve never had that before.”

The report claimed that in parts of the country there are more police communications staff than active journalists - despite which, there was a sense among residents that crime was going under-reported.

“Each local police force operates a website with a news section linked to social media accounts on Facebook and Twitter. The average size of a police force communications team regionally is 20, often rivalling or outweighing the number of active journalists in a region.”

The estimate for the average size of a police force comms team was sourced from a research article published in the European Journal of Criminology, which provided the sizes of five police forces’ communications staff.

The effect of regional news deserts

One local journalist interviewed by the authors said police in their area “act as a competitor and they have a massive advantage… Crime is our big draw and when the police are putting stuff out before you it is blooming frustrating… They’ve got about 200,000 followers which is four times more than we’ve got…

“And of course if the police are criticised in court you can guarantee that it is not going to be on Northants police website.”

Speaking at the report’s launch in Parliament, Dr Barclay said that the problem of local council coverage specifically had been somewhat helped by the Local Democracy Reporting Service - a BBC scheme that sees the corporation fund 165 reporter roles in under-covered areas across the UK.

“The Local Democracy Reporting scheme came up from respondents somewhat inadvertently in that in some of the communities people would say: ‘None of the local institutions seem to get very good coverage’ - but in a couple of instances they would say, ‘The exception is local government specifically’.

“And they weren’t aware of the scheme itself, but they referred me to some coverage and I was able to trace that back to the Local Democracy Reporting scheme.

“So it does appear the scheme is extremely valuable.”

But Barclay said there were places it could work better.

“One was in Northamptonshire, where there’s been a vacancy for over a year. It seems that that is partly because of the pay - it’s quite low - and the skills required to do the job are high. So it’s hard to find a candidate who’s willing to do it and able to do it.”

[Read more: BBC director-general warns licence fee freeze means World Service and local democracy reporter investment not guaranteed]

Moreover, while local democracy reporters had often improved council reporting specifically, Barclay said there was a sense among those interviewed that certain institutions remained opaque to their local communities.

“Two that came up in particular were the police and the NHS.

“One hospital governor mentioned Lewisham Clinical Commissioning Group went into special measures a couple of years ago, and had a budget of £500m, which is more than the budget of the council. In other words - it’s worth covering.”

Local news on social media

As the number of outlets serving local communities has decreased, the study says, those communities have increasingly turned to social media for both finding and distributing local information.

“In the past we have used the Whitby Gazette to publicise changes in our services, life flu vaccine campaigns”, one NHS nurse told interviewers. 

“We don’t do that now because putting something on Facebook is more effective than putting it in the Gazette.”

Editorial judgment had been lost in the transition. The administrator of one popular local Facebook group told the report’s authors: “We don’t wait for hours on end before checking in and publishing the information sent to us…

“The people want to be heard and, provided it is done with respect, we allow them to have their voice... Even if it’s not said with complete respect, we allow people to comment as they wish…. We have no right to determine if they are right/wrong or otherwise.”

Along with this, the study reported, came local division and misinformation. Two interviewees in Whitby described a local rumour they encountered on Facebook that dogs being walked on the beach risked getting ill because of local shellfish deaths.

Similarly, “Whitby’s statue of Captain Cook was rumoured to be under threat of removal during the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020. A crowd of local people turned out to ‘protect’ the statue. In fact there had not been any specific threat to remove the statue.”

In Pembrokeshire, one interviewee said they were “working with a group of young college students with learning disabilities. One of them was absolutely adamant that a church was going to be knocked down and a mosque was going to be built in its place. He wasn’t looking at the source material: it was a nasty Britain First-type group.”

The appetite for professional local news has not diminished, the report found, with respondents wanting both greater scrutiny of local institutions and greater coverage of the everyday.

One said: “About 25 years ago I had a flower pot stolen from my front garden – that made the paper. How lovely to live somewhere where that happens.”

A journalist who works in one of the communities studied told Barclay “nowadays people were less suspicious of talking to her - because she’s such a rarity.”

An interviewee in Lewisham inadvertently summed up the research findings.

“Communities are not working at the moment. People are behind closed doors. People are learning how to be alone. And they need to unlearn how to be alone. Journalism will be an essential tool in building back that cohesion.”

Read the full report

Picture: Press Gazette

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