'Spy' headline was wrong

Star ombudsman Malcom Alcock give his verdict on reader's comments on our coverage.

WE were all saddened to hear of the tragic death of Suffolk-born staff sergeant Sharon Elliott.

Sharon died serving her country in very difficult circumstances, so tragically ending what had been a distinguished military career.

It can be no surprise that her death was the lead story on November 14 in The Star.

In what I assume was an attempt to get an article into the first edition, details from a story from a paper in South Shields were used and attributed to one of its journalists.

It is most regrettable that both the headline and text of this story described Sharon, a member of the Intelligence Corps, as 'a spy.'

There is, of course, the world of difference between a uniformed intelligence officer and a spy. Not surprisingly friends and relatives objected to this description and quickly contacted the editor protesting about the story.

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To the credit of the editorial staff, the story was removed from later editions and replaced by a very moving piece written by a Star journalist, paying tribute to Sharon and focusing on her career and character.

An apology was also carried at the end of a follow up story the following day.

Unfortunately this article was headlined "Soldier Girl Killed in Iraq".

Once again this bought complaints from readers who felt that this description demeaned the very responsible job that she was doing. After all it is most unlikely that a 34-year-old male staff sergeant would be described as a "soldier boy".

Many people may not realise that the first editions of the Evening Star are printed as early as 10.30am, which of course puts enormous strain on the editors when covering breaking news.

While I can see why details originating from another paper was used, it does not excuse repeating mistakes made by the originator of the story.

To describe a serving uniformed soldier as a spy, is more than just unfortunate. In war, the status of a spy and a soldier wearing uniform are very different.

Credit must be given to the editorial staff for reacting to the comments of readers so swiftly, but there is a clear lesson here when using pieces imported from other papers.

Sadly on this occasion the standard of journalism fell below that one is entitled to expect at The Star. The fact that it was not originated by a Star journalist does not excuse such mistakes.

I also find the second headline describing Sharon as a 'soldier girl' insulting to her memory.

Staff sergeants in the army are professionals in their fields of expertise, they carry out difficult tasks in often dangerous circumstances. They deserve to be treated with respect.

Inevitably her gender is an issue, as she was only the second woman soldier killed in Iraq. But surely a 34-year-old woman deserves to be described as such - particularly in these tragic circumstances.

I am sure that Sharon would have regarded herself as a soldier foremost, and would want to be remembered as a member of the forces who served her country.

This is not a matter of political correctness. I am quite happy to go out for a night with 'the boys' and I am sure that many women in similar social contexts are happy to be described as 'one of the girls.'

But in our professional lives we deserve to be acknowledged as adults carrying out our chosen profession.

I recognise that once the mistakes had been made, little more could have been done to redress the impressions given. However headlines are most important, as they often stick in our minds more than the text of a story.

Servicemen and women and their families are entitled to expect that more care will be taken, if further tragic events take place.

The disappearance of Tania Nicol has been widely reported in both local and national press.

We all feel sympathy for her family, trying to deal with her disappearance.

Her mother was asked for an interview, and chose to write to the editor to put her point of view over in an attempt to clarify some of the reporting surrounding the case. I am pleased to see that this letter was printed in full.

In reviewing the coverage of the case I believe that, when taken as a whole, a real attempt has been made to provide a balanced picture of Tania's life style. Also the Star-inspired poster campaign should ensure that her disappearance does not fall from our minds.

I am sure I speak for all when I say that both the Nichol and Elliott families have our deepest sympathy and understanding at these most difficult times.

That is all for this month, but as always if you are dissatisfied by the way the editorial staff have dealt with a complaint you can contact me. I will investigate and take it forward on your behalf.

I can be contacted in writing at the Star or by email at ombudsman@eveningstar.co.uk.

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