Monday 12 November 2007

Information gathering

A story of when the humble traffic reporter scooped the newsdesks:

Around lunchtime today a massive cloud of smoke appeared over East London, clearly visible from the building where I work. Immediately people were asking each other: Was London under terrorist attack again? Were toxic fumes being released into the air? Would we be able to get home tonight? The story was too new for any of the usual news websites to have any information, so I dug out my headphones and tuned in to the local radio station to find out what was going on.

After about five minutes of an interview with some minor celebrity, the presenter cut in with a 'breaking news on-the-spot report' by phone from a local cab driver. He was a couple of miles away but estimated where he thought the fire was to within a mile or so and gave a description of what he could see, which was basically a lot of black smoke in the sky. The radio presenter commented on the pictures he'd just found on the TV news, but said the information was sketchy and they'd keep us updated with whatever they found out in the unfolding drama. Then he cut to the traffic report.

The traffic and travel reporter told us calmly and confidently that it was a fire, where it was, what roads were closed, where the worst of the congestion was, then got on with telling us what was going on with the roads and public transport across the rest of London. The news room had just been scooped by the traffic desk.

Our immediate questions weren't about what kind of traffic jam had been caused by the fire, but in gathering that information the traffic desk also knew a lot of basics we did want to know, and from the fact there weren't reports of the whole area being evacuated we could assume there wasn't a major leak of hazardous substances.

I guess the moral of that story is that sometimes the best place to go for information isn't necessarily the most obvious. It helps to think about who has the best ability for (and often the technology most suited to) gathering the information in the first place.

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