The Only Way is Ethics: A deeply unfortunate turn of phrase in our reporting on Phillip Hughes’s injury

An article we published was wrong to speculate on reasons for Phillip Hughes being struck - he was simply the victim of the most hideous bad luck

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The Independent Online

For those who tend to mock cricket for being rather slow, even twee, the horrible death this week of Australian batsman Phillip Hughes might serve to change their minds.

It hardly needs to be said that cricket can be extremely dangerous. Fast bowlers hurl a very hard ball at their opponents from 22 yards away. Most people who have played the game – at whatever level – have been injured to one degree or another.

Some readers were upset at an article which appeared the day after Hughes was hurt, while he remained critical in hospital. It highlighted the difficulties Hughes had experienced against short-pitched bowling in the past and noted the tragic irony that, having seemingly overcome the deficiency, he had nonetheless been felled so brutally by a bouncer.

When sportsmen or women are involved in on-field accidents it is not uncommon to speculate on the possible reasons. When Formula 1 drivers crash, commentators question their track line. If a footballer breaks their leg in a tackle, the television cameras immediately show us from five angles whether the player had put themself at risk with poor timing.

Our piece about Hughes made a fairly brief reference to the way in which he had endeavoured to play the particular ball which hit him but that was not its central purpose. In truth, Hughes was simply the victim of the most hideous bad luck. Moreover, the article was only one element of our coverage of the tragedy, though it looked starker as a standalone item online than it did in the print edition.

In one respect, we certainly did go wrong. The article initially appeared under a headline which said that Hughes’s old problem against bouncers had come back “to haunt him”. Given how critically ill Hughes was, the use of that phrase was deeply unfortunate. It was subsequently changed on the web.

Using everyday turns of phrase that are either metaphorical or have two possible meanings can be perilous. A former colleague was mortified when he sent a letter to a blind person which began: “I thought you would like to have sight of the following…” And not long ago I suggested unthinkingly to somebody that the potential inclusion of a particular detail in a story about a pedestrian fatality was not something to “die in a ditch for”. These slips happen all too easily.

Nevertheless, when writing about death or serious injuries, we have a duty to be sensitive. That can be hard to define. But inadvertently we erred with our headline and for that I am sorry.

 

Do mention the Germans

A thief last week stole items from a museum on the site of a Second World War concentration camp at Majdanek.

We described the site as being in Poland, which it is, and said it had been run by the Nazis, which it was. But we did not refer to Germany or to Germans, which led one reader to complain. He argued it was potentially misleading to omit reference to Germany because younger readers might only have sketchy knowledge of the war and would be left with the impression that Poland, as a nation, had helped to carry out the Holocaust.

I would like to think this is unlikely. Then again, a survey a few years ago found 25 per cent of Britons aged 15 to 19 could not name any of Germany’s wartime allies.

Journalism is said to be the first draft of history. Once that draft has been edited, verified and accepted, the media has a vital role in ensuring that historical events are not open to future misunderstanding.

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