Amber Alert? Apparently that’s just a story slug at Broadcast News Ltd. (BN).
Yesterday, while teaching a news production class and searching the newswires, an urgent story, identified by a lightning bolt, popped up with the story slug “Amber Alert”.
A story slug is basically a two or three-word title that identifies what a story is to anyone using the newswires or a news line-up. An Amber Alert is issued when a child goes missing; so of course I immediately opened the story to find out what the circumstances were. What I saw was an update on the court appearance of Randy Hopley—accused of kidnapping 3-year old Kienan Hebert from his home in Sparwood, B.C.
I thought it had to be an error, but throughout the day more stories about Hopley kept appearing, all with the story slug “Amber Alert”, all marked as urgent.
The colleague I was working with and I discussed it, agreed it must be a mistake, and she picked up the phone to call BN and let them know. The person at the Ontario desk agreed it was an issue and put her through to the National desk. There we hit the wall of newsroom prejudice.
It seemed that before the situation had even been explained, the National editor had decided that as we weren’t working in his newsroom we didn’t know what we were talking about. We both took a turn at trying to explain what the issue was with slugging a story “Amber Alert” when there wasn’t one.
- He said that was what the story was originally called so that is how they would continue to slug it.
- When questioned about the fact the slug was misleading, he didn’t seem to care. In fact he said “people” didn’t see that slug, only newsrooms, so it didn’t matter.
- When I explained I worked in a newsroom using newswires for almost a decade and was looking at the same wire system I did there, he had no response.
- When asked what they would slug another Amber Alert, he said two amber alerts had never happened at the same time in his “15 years in the business” and that it might be called “Amber Alert 2”.
- When I asked him how long he thought Hopley would be going through the court system and if they would continue to use “Amber Alert” as a slug for the duration he said they’d “cross that bridge when they come to it”.
- When I tried to explain that misusing the term Amber Alert when there isn’t one could desensitize people to the call to help find a missing child, he said they’d take that “under advisement”.
As it turns out we weren’t the only ones who were concerned with this particular story slug. A part-time faculty member who directs for CBC saw the same “Amber Alert” slug the night prior, and was in the midst of trying to figure out how to break into programming when he discovered it was an update on the Hopley case. There was no Amber Alert. Consensus in the control room was that using such a slug was “insane”.
This might not seem like a big deal on the surface, but anyone who has or loves a child should be concerned. The whole point of an Amber Alert is immediate action. Anything that takes away from the sense of immediacy that should inspire is irresponsible.
If professional journalism is going to distinguish itself in a media climate where everyone can be a producer, it has to have the highest standards. But this is also a perfect example of how some journalists haven’t grasped the fact that they are no longer working in an environment where they always know best. Sometimes “people” have a valid point.