Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

Covering a missing persons case

Posted in Journalism, News and that by Adam Westbrook on January 24, 2009

So I have a confession to make. Last week, I made an editorial decision; the wrong editorial decision.

It was a Thursday afternoon, and with my editor at a management meeting I was left alone, in charge of the news desk.

A press release from the police appeared in the inbox: “Police seek help in finding missing teenager, Cleethorpes“. I opened it up, scanned through it and pondered whether to include it.

After some umming and ahhing, I decided not to. Here’s why:

  • She’d only been missing for about 18 hours
  • Teenagers go awol quite often; if she was still missing in a week, then it would be news.
  • The family were not giving interviews.
  • We’d already run several missing persons stories in the week before
  • My bulletins were already jam packed with big stories-local and national-on which we had lots of good audio; there was just no room.

It wasn’t a rushed decision or a lazy one; I gave it thought, and felt justified in my approach when I closed the message.

But that missing teenager would later turn out to be Laura Stainforth, and 7 days later her name would be in every national newspaper.


Later that evening, when the search was the lead story on the BBC regional news programme, was when I started questioning whether I’d been right to leave it out.

Now it wasn’t a disastrous decision. The next day we were able to pick it up when a new angle about her internet life emerged.

And this week I spent several days in Cleethorpes making sure we had all the right coverage, including interviews with the police and Laura’s headteacher.

Would our audience have noticed? No. Was it a massive boo-boo? No. But still I’ve learnt it’s important to always be prepared to question your decisions, but at the same time be prepared to stand up and defend them too.

What would you have done?


2 Responses

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  1. behnnie said, on January 26, 2009 at 8:51 am

    Sounds to me as though you did the right thing. That is to say: you did the thing that made the most sense given the circumstances, and that’s what keeps things moving. Sure the long shots and hunches are amazing to be able to *wow* over in retrospect, but there’s got to be some substance backing it all up. Substance based on rational thought and logical decision making. Still– a shame when reason and logic keep you from breaking a big story, eh? šŸ˜‰

  2. adamwestbrook said, on January 26, 2009 at 9:31 pm

    Haha ain’t that the truth.
    Had another one today: 11 year old missing for 2 days…but has a history of going missing. Is it news?

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