The three things a public allegation can tell us about local news

The impressively direct update from Translink yesterday to a recent allegation that a teenage boy had been turned away from one of their buses brought an apparent end to a story that was very much ‘of a type’: a single accusation made by a member of the public against a large organisation then left to respond to a sudden social media storm.

This piece isn’t about the Translink/ Linfield jacket story as I have no idea what happened that day or if the story has, in fact, come to a close.

However such stories, which provide instant debate despite a lack of proven facts, tend to make three things very plain:

– The word ‘allegedly’ might as well not exist:   Follow any allegation on Twitter and you’ll see it turn into a fact within minutes. Everyone from political representatives to large organisations can can be caught out treating a claim as a proven event. In general, and again stepping away from the Translink/ Linfield story, it concerns me that young people in particular can be whipped into a frenzy over a mere allegation. And it concerns me even more that elected representatives can be seen fanning the flames – as if claim was fact – when it suits their agenda to create more heat. There is either an misunderstanding of “allegedly” or at best carelessness behind this.

– There is a lack of awareness about what an organisation’s communications office can actually do: A number of Tweets have asked Translink to clarify what did in fact happen, since they have now said what didn’t happen. I think many people misunderstand that privacy, legal restraint, a very wise desire to only state what can be actually proven and straightforward discretion when it comes to their customers will lead a communications officer to speak only about the actions of their own organisation. The communications officer may well know something about the wider story that they are simply not in a position, for above reasons, to divulge. The ‘two sides’ rule always applying but therefore restrained from the public view. That’s why when I listen to the likes of the Nolan Show it often strikes me that a large organisation facing an allegation is responding with two hands tied behind their back.

– When an allegation disappears, so do those who lobbied on the back of it: Even though a claim has dropped off the news agenda, the damage to the organisation at the centre of the allegation remains. In my humble opinion and again in a general sense, news outlets should return to those who had raised the most noise. Representatives such as local councillors may not be accountable for their statements in the same way as an organisation, but they should be held to account by newsrooms to help repair the harm done and the story then revisited to update public understanding of what actually happened. As it stands, the organisation’s fiercest critics drop the subject and the allegation is left hanging, with some people still left thinking that the alleged event did in fact occur.

Again, I don’t know what happened on the day of any incident involving Translink and the young accuser. I only know that work in schools to promote understanding of the word “allegedly” and greater accountability when it comes to those who support allegations could help bring about more responsible use of language and a more fact-based public debate when these types of stories inevitably occur.

We all know how quickly online anger can be enflamed and end up in the street in Northern Ireland. This simple approach, in my view, could help avoid one common source of ignition.

Conor Johnston – @CJohnstonNI – writes about subjects including culture (especially film/ cinemas), identity and media. He also blogs at www.freerangewords.net