During Shannon Matthews disappeared ITV helped her family to record their own story

After Shannon was found, the Matthews family wanted the media to respect their privacy. Keir Simmons and his ITV News team did just that – by letting them record their own story

Last Monday, ITV News broadcast the first pictures from inside Karen Matthews' home since her nine-year-old daughter Shannon was found after being missing for 24 days. What made this footage remarkable was that it was shot by the Matthews family themselves and was the culmination of a painstaking process of winning their trust. I hope the pictures provided an accurate reflection of the family.

During the long search for Shannon, I and the rest of our small team had spent much time drinking tea and getting to know Karen Matthews' friends and family, and we took a decision to give them camcorders in the hope that they might later provide us with pictures that we otherwise could not have got.

Shannon was found on Friday 24 March, and the news came through first with a text message, then with whispered rumours from members of the Find Shannon Campaign, and then with a flurry of phone calls. Thanks to the relationship we had nurtured, the Matthews family trusted me, our cameraman, Keith Edwards, and the producer, Matt Williams. They could have simply thrown us out and closed the door, but they let us film some very personal moments. That night, we were able to tell the story in pictures, not just words.

But then the shutters came down, and the camcorders came into their own. The big celebratory family party was due to take place on Saturday night at their home in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, but by Saturday morning a police officer was on guard outside the front door and family liaison officers were apparently advising the family to restrict their involvement with the media.

The effect of this strategy was that Karen and her family were only filmed in the street, looking understandably anxious, surrounded by cameras. It seemed an inaccurate portrayal of their real mood.

Our intention was to try to get more exclusive pictures for the Monday evening's bulletins, so we got a message to the family suggesting that they use the camcorder that ITV News had given to Karen several days earlier, and film the celebrations inside the house themselves – to record their own version of events. Of course, we were concerned whether they would use the camera effectively and honestly – but they had trusted us before, and this time we had to trust them.

When the big party happened on Saturday night, the media was shut out on the street. But indoors, the family were filming it all, even taking shots through the windows of the TV cameras and reporters camped outside.

It was a tense atmosphere when we got the camera back on Monday afternoon. There were some especially nervous moments, such as wondering, as we pressed eject, whether the tape was still inside. We were unsure whether there would be any useable footage at all. In all honesty, it was far from perfect, not least because I had left the night-vision switch on when I gave them the camcorder, turning everything a shade of green.

The filming was a little wobbly, too; this kind of camera work can never replace that of a professional camera operator. But what you did get was the family relaxed and being themselves. It was real. If we had been allowed in with a TV camera, I wonder whether the pictures would have been as genuine: the presence of a TV crew would arguably have distorted the atmosphere.

Trying to portray Shannon's family as honestly as possible was particularly important to us, given the raging debate surrounding the story. Questions had been asked about the fairness of the media in its coverage of a missing nine-year-old girl from a council estate. I hoped ITV News' contribution would be to give the viewer an honest picture of Shannon's world. The audience could then make their own judgments based on what they had seen. For me, television is at its best when it takes you into other people's lives, and I think giving someone a camcorder can help do that, bringing the audience into their world.

That's not to say there aren't real issues with such journalistic techniques. By handing over a camera to a member of the public closely involved in a major story, we handed over some control over what was filmed. They decided what to record – although we retained editorial control over what was broadcast. But then, clearly, on this occasion, the alternative was to have no footage at all. The challenge to us, as journalists, was getting the right balance between gaining the trust of Karen Matthews' family and keeping the trust of the viewers.

There was another issue, too. The camcorder video included many children. Despite the family having filmed it themselves, we took the decision to blur the faces of the youngsters. They didn't ask us to do that. We gave them a camera but we didn't give up our judgment.

Shannon Matthews' story is not simple, but then reality isn't simple. She comes from a council estate where life is hard for many people and where there are quite a number of "dysfunctional families". But then, whose family isn't dysfunctional? It's a close community, where everyone leaves their door unlocked, but also a place where many people suffer from poverty and low self-esteem. I hope that our coverage helped viewers to understand a little more about their lives, instead of just criticising them. But ultimately, that's up to the viewers.

Keir Simmons is a reporter for ITV News

Suggested Topics
News
A 1930 image of the Karl Albrecht Spiritousen and Lebensmittel shop, Essen. The shop was opened by Karl and Theo Albrecht’s mother; the brothers later founded Aldi
people
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'
filmA cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Arts and Entertainment
Flora Spencer-Longhurst as Lavinia, William Houston as Titus Andronicus and Dyfan Dwyfor as Lucius
theatreThe Shakespeare play that proved too much for more than 100 people
News
exclusivePunk icon Viv Albertine on Sid Vicious, complacent white men, and why free love led to rape
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
Stir crazy: Noel Fielding in 'Luxury Comedy 2: Tales from Painted Hawaii'
comedyAs ‘Luxury Comedy’ returns, Noel Fielding on why mainstream success scares him and what the future holds for 'The Boosh'
Life and Style
Flow chart: Karl Landsteiner discovered blood types in 1900, yet scientists have still not come up with an explanation for their existence
lifeAll of us have one. Yet even now, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Arts and Entertainment
'Weird Al' Yankovic, or Alfred Matthew, at the 2014 Los Angeles Film Festival Screening of
musicHis latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do our experts think he’s missed out?
Sport
New Real Madrid signing James Rodríguez with club president Florentino Perez
sportColombian World Cup star completes £63m move to Spain
Travel
Hotel Tour d’Auvergne in Paris launches pay-what-you-want
travelIt seems fraught with financial risk, but the policy has its benefits
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe best children's books for this summer
Life and Style
News to me: family events were recorded in the personal columns
techFamily events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped that
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Web / Digital Analyst - SiteCatalyst or Google Analytics

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client who are a leading publisher in...

Data Scientist

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: A data analytics are currently looking t...

Graduate Sales Executive

17.5k + Commission (£18.5k after probation period): ESI Media: You will be res...

PPC Account Managers

£25k - £30k (DOE): Guru Careers: Two expert PPC Account Managers are needed to...

Day In a Page

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

A land of the outright bizarre
What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

The worst kept secret in cinema

A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

The new hatched, matched and dispatched

Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
Why do we have blood types?

Are you my type?

All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

Honesty box hotels

Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
Commonwealth Games 2014: Why weight of pressure rests easy on Michael Jamieson’s shoulders

Michael Jamieson: Why weight of pressure rests easy on his shoulders

The Scottish swimmer is ready for ‘the biggest race of my life’ at the Commonwealth Games
Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

The 'scroungers’ fight back

The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

Fireballs in space

Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
A Bible for billionaires

A Bible for billionaires

Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

Paranoid parenting is on the rise

And our children are suffering because of it
For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

Magna Carta Island goes on sale

Yours for a cool £4m
Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn