Amber Alert? Just a story slug at Broadcast News Ltd.

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.

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4 thoughts on “Amber Alert? Just a story slug at Broadcast News Ltd.

  1. Your argument about journalists no longer working in a father-knows-best environment is total bull in this instance. I’m sorry your feelings were hurt but the editor dismissed you because your complaint is preposterous. Every newsroom in the country was following this story and, thus, knew exactly what the Amber Alert slug would have referred to. Any journalist who didn’t know the slug was a follow on the Kienan/Hopley case (and not a statistically impossible second alert) wasn’t doing his job. Further, to change the slug after the story had shifted would have risked confusing newsrooms. Wires, wisely, stick to common slugs to keep the genesis of a story clear.

    If you work in a newsroom, you understand this. If you don’t, the slug is unpublished, and therefore irrelevant anyway.

    To assume such a slug would somehow desensitize media to Amber Alerts is insane. These are among the rarest and most sensational stories we cover. Media jumped on this alert and broadcast it far and wide for four straight days.

  2. Thanks for your very thoughtful comment Jen, although I think we’re going to have to agree to disagree on this one.

    First off, let me assure you my feelings were in no way hurt by the editor 🙂 I’ve worked in and around a news environment far too long to take a dispute of this nature personally.

    As for the use of the story slug–yes, every newsroom in the country is following this story, but not as an Amber Alert. And as you read in my blog, the slug threw CBC’s newsroom as much as it threw me and my co-worker. The whole point of an Amber Alert is that it is a new case, not a follow up.

    I googled you and see you work at the Calgary Herald (as an aside you probably know a friend of mine from my Master’s cohort, David Hedley). Because of your job, I understand that you use newswires yourself. Yes “Wires, wisely, stick to common slugs to keep the genesis of a story clear”. Calling something an Amber Alert when it is about a court appearance does the exact opposite.

    I also disagree that there is no chance of desensitizing media to Amber Alerts if they’re not used properly. If you’re sitting at an assignment desk or producing a show and continuously going through wires if you see 6 “Amber Alert” slugs pop up in one day that are not about an Amber Alert, by the 7th time it happens your reaction will not be be the same.

    Again, thanks so much for taking the time comment.

  3. I thought you were correct to call attention to the issue. Wire services DO change slugs as stories advance… even to add the extra word ‘Hopley-Amber Alert’ would have clarified it enough so that anyone would know immediately what the story was about. Does BN or CP use the Amber Alert slug for every single AA follow? If they do, then it’s going to become very confusing for everyone and mistakes WILL be made. Jen Gerson’s assertion that “Any journalist who didn’t know the slug was a follow on the Kienan/Hopley case (and not a statistically impossible second alert) wasn’t doing his job” is total bull and obviously written from the perspective of a newpaper journalist. She has no idea about the immediacy of working in a radio or television newsroom where we don’t always have the luxury of 8-12 hour deadlines.
    As a 30 year veteran journalist I have seen the wire services evolve to reflect changes in both newsrooms and the industry as a whole, and I must say in all my dealings with them I have never been spoken to like that. They are a business like any other and have always treated each client/subscriber as a customer, listening to our concerns and acting on them. He deserves a severe reprimand for taking such a defensive posture and not listening to your concerns seriously. You may no longer work in an active newsroom but the students you are teaching are the future of our industry. Keep up the good work!

  4. Thanks for your comment Darren. I was only dealing with BN on this issue and for this particular story they were using the AA slug for every follow. Your comments about the immediacy of television/radio news also got me thinking about how media logic, something I’ve written about extensively in my thesis, affects news production. Basically, media logic dictates that format trumps content. Stories are produced in a specific manner to meet production standards as opposed to editorial understanding. If the policy at BN is to use the same slug once a story has aired regardless of how that story has changed, it isn’t about what makes sense, but the most convenient way to slug the story.
    The other thing this online conversation had me contemplating was how much I love having this blog. Whether people agree with me or not, the fact they care enough about the industry and the quality of journalism to even take the time to contribute a comment is very heartening.

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