Deciding whether news is in the public interest

A public interest test scenario

<a href="" target="_new">Image by Heath Alseike</a> released via <a href="" target="_blank">Creative Commons CC BY 2.0</a>
Image by Heath Alseike released via Creative Commons CC BY 2.0

How do you decide if a story is in the public interest or not? This site already has a training module on applying the public interest test to journalism, but we have now put together a scenario. It’s been published after a request for help defining what is meant by the public interest.

The news desk receives a tip-off

You are the news editor. The news desk receives a tip from a source close to the local police department that the son of the government’s education minister is in trouble with the police. According to the tip, he has been found with marijuana in his possession.

There is a debate currently going on in parliament and the press about whether offenders holding small amounts of marijuana should be prosecuted. The quantity involved in this case is not known.

The minister has not taken sides in the debate. The son is not a public figure and has not previously been the subject of any news stories. He is 24 years old and works as a teacher in a school for children with learning disabilities.

Which of the following should be your first response as a news editor?

  1. ignore the story as the son is not a public figure.
  2. contact the education minister for a comment.
  3. contact the son for his version of events.
  4. contact the school where he works.
  5. ask the police about the status of their investigation.
  6. contact campaigners who want the drugs laws relaxed.

Suggested action

At this stage it would probably be best to ask the police about the status of their investigation. You cannot make any informed decision until you have tested the quality of the original tip and begun to explore its implications. The police are the right people to ask about the story in the first instance as you to try to establish some facts.

Police confirm incident

The police have confirmed that the son was arrested. He has not been charged but police say “enquiries are continuing”. What should you do next?

  1. report the facts as known.
  2. seek more information from the son, his parent, his friends, colleagues etc.
  3. do nothing at this stage – decide to wait for more information to emerge.
  4. drop the story.

Suggested action

You should probably seek more information from the son, his parent, his friends, colleagues etc. At this stage you are still not in a position to evaluate whether the story is in the public interest or not. You simply do not know enough either to drop the story or to publish it. Doing nothing is not an option – your competitors may well also be investigating and if there IS a story, they will beat you to it.

Unable to stand the story up

Your reporters return from making enquiries. The son cannot be contacted. He is not at his home or, apparently, at school. His friends are uncooperative. The education minister’s spokesman has said: “This is a private matter and the minister will be making no comment.” The school where the son works refuses to discuss the matter. What should you do next?

  1. report the facts as known.
  2. look for other people who might know what is going on.
  3. do nothing – wait for more information to emerge.
  4. drop the story.

Suggested action

It would probably be wise to look for other people who might know what is going on. Although you have not learned much that is new, you do understand the son is not at home or at his job. This needs to be investigated: for example, is he ill, gone to ground or been suspended? Tell your reporters to seek a formal statement from the education authority and to widen their enquiries, looking into his school and college life.

More information comes to light

Reporters come back with some further insight. The son was a brilliant and popular student. He is single, lives alone, dedicated to his job but with a lively social life. Nobody has seen him in the past few days. The education authority finally says that he is on sick leave. It is aware of the police investigation but the son has not been suspended.

At this point you are under pressure to use your resources on other stories. You have to make a decision. What should you do?

  1. publish the facts as known.
  2. in addition to the facts, speculate on the possible effect on the public and parliamentary debate about drugs.
  3. drop the story.

Suggested action

You should consider publishing the facts as known. Your choices here are to report briefly, report big, or don’t report at all. The main question is whether publication is in the public interest.

Summing up – the public interest test

The son is not a public figure. He has not been suspended by the education authority and since they know of his arrest it seems unlikely that he has committed any major offence. You do not want to destroy his career.

The simple fact of his parentage does not make him a public figure, but his arrest for a possible drugs offence, at a time of national debate, might influence his parent.

The fact that he is a teacher and his parent is education minister adds weight to your decision to publish. But perhaps the most important factor in this set of circumstances is the fact that if you do NOT publish you might be accused of joining in a wall of silence about this young man.

Conclusion: So the responsible course is to publish the facts, neutrally and briefly. It’s not a huge story but it’s one you cannot afford to overlook.

See our module on the public interest test.

Bob Eggington
Bob Eggington has been a journalist since 1969. He began in newspapers before joining the BBC where he worked for almost 30 years, including a spell as the head of the BBC's political and parliamentary unit. He was the project director responsible for launching BBC News Online in 1997. Bob currently works as a media strategy consultant in the UK and overseas.