The Blog

How news works – and how to avoid shattering headlines

Headlines on Friday screamed the news.

“We’re very much not a racist family.”

The quote belonged to the future King.

Why would Prince William say such a thing?

Well, because he was asked.

Following accusations by Meghan Markle that a member of the royal family asked what colour her baby would be, a reporter shouted the question:

“Is the royal family a racist family sir?”

And William’s response travelled around the world within minutes.

How news works

how news works, journalists, pink elephant

For as long as reporters have asked questions, respondents have repeated their words back to them.

What follows is a complaint that the reporter “put words in my mouth”.

William needs to learn to refuse the bait.

If you offered me food that would make me gag, like oysters or snails, I’d say “no thanks”.

And that’s exactly what anybody needs to do when “doorstepped” by a reporter.

Turn down what you’re being offered – and say what you believe instead.

William did say ”no”, but then repeated back the words.

So what could he have said?

How about:

“Absolutely not.

“We work very hard to treat everybody equally, regardless of race.”

Then he’d be quoted saying they “treat everybody equally” instead of “we’re very much not a racist family”.

How to avoid creating negative headlines

how news works, bill mcfarlan, pink elephant

If Prince William is to avoid creating the wrong headlines, he needs to do one of two things.

Answer positively or keep quiet.

The Queen has avoided controversy much of her life by staying quiet.

(Although staying quiet after Diana’s death was much-criticised and created controversy).

I encourage anybody to deal with the media head-on, but be aware of where the landmines lie.

One is swallowing the question – hook, line, and sinker – as a quick response.

Because it’s absolutely playing to the reporter’s agenda, rather than to our own.

The dangers of negativity

how news works, pink elephant, negativity

If you want to look at the damage done by negative language, turn the clock back a week.

Chairman Gordon Beattie resigned soon after posting:

“At Beattie Communications, we don’t hire blacks, gays or Catholics.”

He was attempting to make a point about hiring for the sake of talent.

But that inflammatory line brought his illustrious career with his PR company to a shuddering stop.

On its own, the first line of his post looked dreadful.

And on its own is how it would be reported.

Now the Press may argue that talking only positively to the media would be boring.

It certainly would remove a lot of negative headlines.

But it’s hardly the pinnacle of investigative journalism to get someone to “take the bait”.

Whether they’re a prince or a pauper.

Asking questions

how news works, bill mcfarlan, asking questions

I started in journalism in 1975 cutting my teeth on local weekly newspapers, before spending the next 25 years in radio and TV.

I learned that you can capture “sound bites” by provoking people with questions they felt they had to repudiate.

Or you could ask them questions that lead to greater understanding.

Rudyard Kipling, author of The Jungle Book, was a journalist.

He wrote:

I keep six honest serving-men

They taught me all I knew

Their names are What and Why and When

And How and Where and Who.

These questions go deeper and avoid settling for the sensationalist headline. 

If you’d like to learn more on that, visit our Pink Elephant Academy for our e-learning course on Working with the Media.

It still leaves us with a question.

Are we all just willing to settle for the excitement of a headline that catches our eye?

Indeed, did the reporter’s news editor send him out with the express purpose of catching the ‘not racist’ headline?

If so, I believe the BBC needs to be better than that.

But then, so does the Prince.


Bill McFarlan is co-Founder and Executive Chairman at Pink Elephant Communications in Glasgow.

You can read his full profile here.


Photos in How news works by Pink Elephant Communications.
How news works blog written by Bill McFarlan.
How news works blog edited by Colin Stone.

15th March 2021 Featured in: Blog, Commentary, Media training blogs By:

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