Mediawatch special: Ryan Mason and the need to be first

Date published: Monday 23rd January 2017 12:50

On Sunday, Hull City’s Ryan Mason was involved in a clash of heads with Chelsea’s Gary Cahill was and carried from the pitch wearing an oxygen mask to be taken to hospital. This much we know.

At times like these, it would be reassuring if Mason’s safety was of utmost importance in everyone’s minds. Alas, bad news sells better than good.

‘Ryan Mason carried off on a stretcher after sickening clash of heads with Chelsea’s Gary Cahill,’ read the Daily Mirror headline at 4.55pm, which is fair enough. ‘Ryan Mason taken to hospital after nasty collision with Chelsea star Gary Cahill,’ read a new story 65 minutes later. And then came the big one…

‘Ryan Mason is fighting for his life after suffering a fractured skull and bleeding on the brain from a sickening clash of heads with Gary Cahill,’ the first paragraph read. The byline was updated from one, to two, to three journalists. The original story mentioned ‘sources’ before being quickly altered.

The Mirror clearly knew that they had something big. Their original tweet, with ‘fights for life’ included, currently has 6,200 retweets (EDIT: Tweets deleted at 7.30am, ten hours after story was altered), and they followed the news story with two further pieces: ‘Who is Ryan Mason? The Hull City midfielder profiled after suffering serious head injury in collision against Chelsea’ (erm, a Hull City midfielder?) and ‘Harry Kane leads tributes as football rallies around Ryan Mason after Hull midfielder suffers serious head injury’.

Let’s be absolutely clear: ‘Fights for life’ has vivid connotations. It suggests that Mason is close to death – that is life (not just his professional life) hangs in the balance. You would expect not just typical caution when printing that story, but extreme caution. Mason’s family will see that.

Except that the Mirror were wrong. At 10.41pm, 15 minutes after the second of the Mirror’s ‘fights for life’ tweets, Hull City released a statement in which they confirmed that Mason sustained a skull fracture, but ‘is in a stable condition and is expected to remain in hospital for the next few days’. The Mirror changed their story, and changed their back and front pages too, but left the tweets un-deleted for ten hours. They were doing great engagement, after all.

Nobody at the Mirror ‘made up’ that Mason was fighting for his life; Mediawatch simply doesn’t believe that would happen. Yet the whole incident does raise questions about the use of unverified sources. In an interview last year, Darren Lewis – one of the journalists on the byline – said the following: “When we write a transfer story, or any kind of story, we’re not speculating on whether it will happen or not – we’re just moving the information we’ve received into the public domain.”

Yet surely a player’s life isn’t ‘any kind of story’? Surely it deserves to be treated with a little more care than Patrick Bamford joining Middlesbrough or Victor Lindelof’s Manchester United saga? Surely it matters whether the story is right or not when you write the words ‘Ryan Mason is fighting for his life…’? In printing the source you are taking a chance. Most of the time that barely matters, but here it certainly did.

Mediawatch is not laying the blame at the feet of the journalists in question; far from it. This is an industry that increasingly needs to find clicks, readers and social engagement to survive. This is an industry for which being first is now more important that being right. That shift in priorities made the front and back-page scoop more important than giving an accurate picture of a 24-year-old’s health.

‘Forget about the football,’ the Mirror’s Mike Walters wrote in his column less than two hours after their original story. ‘Get well soon, Ryan Mason. Everything else is immaterial.’

We couldn’t agree more, Mike. Just a shame not everybody got the memo.

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