BROOKE GLADSTONE: As combatants in Syria try to wrest control of the narrative in the mere absence of journalists, in London nearly 30,000 journalists and their staff have been drawn by the Olympic Games. But, according to the International Olympic Committee, about a quarter of them are not actually accredited to cover the Games. That leaves thousands free to report on everything from traffic jams to human interest stories, to — well, whatever news they can squeeze out of the locale. And that’s a chilling prospect for civic leaders.
So, as Christopher Werth reports, Olympic host cities increasingly try to shape the coverage those unaccredited reporters produce.
CHRISTOPHER WERTH: Glen Kirton knows quite a bit about the distinction between credited and non-accredited media. For 15 years, he was a press officer for the English Football Association. That’s soccer to you and me. And he says there were always two types of journalists that covered big sporting events. There were the professional sportswriters and then there were those who covered everything else. They were called the rotters.
GLEN KIRTON: A rotter is an English slang term from the 19th century, I think, and all they were there to do was to write the bad news stories. And they were bored or you did not keep them supplied with good stories, then they would certainly write the bad stuff.
CHRISTOPHER WERTH: Today Kirton applies that same lesson here, as project director for The London Media Centre, a home away from home for the world’s media during the Olympics.
GLEN KIRTON: And this is where journalists will come to file their copy, to…
CHRISTOPHER WERTH: This is not to be confused with the official Olympic Media Centre. No, this one is for the rotters, where non-accredited journalists like me have been asked to get accreditation, to be non-accredited journalists, during the Games. So far close to 8,000 unaccredited journalists have registered in London, and while accrediting the non-accredited may sound like an oxymoron, Garry Whannel, who tracks Olympic media coverage at the University of Bedfordshire, says more and more, it’s a way for host cities like London to wield some influence over this growing unofficial press corps.
GARRY WHANNEL: The several thousand unaccredited journalists actually have the ear and the eye of the public every bit as much as the accredited ones, the perspective of the Organizing Committee is that they can’t be left to roam around unchecked. And it’s almost become an imperative, I think. You can’t take the risk of just not knowing who is reporting and what they might be reporting.
CHRISTOPHER WERTH: For example, London’s Olympic organizers would probably like to avoid embarrassing stories, like the recent coverage of a botched Olympic security contract.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Private security firm G4S is taking a beating in the British media after news broke the firm would not be able to fulfill its security contract for the London Olympics…
CHRISTOPHER WERTH: Or perhaps the upcoming anniversary of the deadly riots that swept the UK last year.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: … the riots. They describe it as the worst in current memory.
CHRISTOPHER WERTH: Martine Ainsworth Wells is London’s director of marketing. She says one only has to look at the ’96 Games in Atlanta and the bombing there to see just how badly the Olympic coverage can go.
MARTINE AINSWORTH WELLS: Atlanta probably would admit that they didn’t look after their non-accredited media as well as they should have. And the non-accredited media then kind of turned against the Atlanta Games, and Atlanta definitely has not gone down as one of the best Games in our lifetime.
CHRISTOPHER WERTH: Host cities, she says, depend on positive Olympic coverage in order to reap the benefits of increased tourism and investment. She says that’s why every host city since Atlanta has bent ever further backward to cater to non-accredited reporters. To that end, Glen Kirton at the London Media Centre says his goal is to make a journalist’s job as pleasant and easy as possible, with free Wi-fi, packaged news stories in hundreds of media events, from cooking classes to shopping tours that are meant to showcase London.
GLEN KIRTON: If you’re providing something that is ready-digested, could be broadcast or written about, as it stands, then you’ve got a good chance because journalists are under pressure. They don’t always have the length of time to write about things that they would like, and if they find something that suits the purpose, then they have — they’ll use it.
CHRISTOPHER WERTH: Andy Miah, of the University of West Scotland, has studied the growth of non-accredited media at the Olympics.
ANDY MIAH: A lot of the journalists that come here are actually quite willing and receptive to those kinds of promotional devices. And, in fact, many of them probably rely on it.
CHRISTOPHER WERTH: To find out more, I went undercover and joined a media event billed as a restaurant safari, sampling different London restaurants. On the tour with me was Chinese TV reporter Zu Zhi Feng, along with a cameraman who filmed Shu as he described everything he ate for the viewers back home.
ZU ZHI FENG: You know, the athletes, they compete together, but here — how shall I put it? [LAUGHS] That’s the “Food Olympic.”
CHRISTOPHER WERTH: So the story is about the Food Olympics –
SHU JU FENG: Yeah, the different flavors of the food.
CHRISTOPHER WERTH: And how those flavors compete. Later, Shu explained, the feature is part of a series that depicts Britain for a Chinese audience.
ZU ZHI FENG: So people are so concerned about the way the British people live.
CHRISTOPHER WERTH: And are you having trouble finding those stories?
ZU ZHI FENG: It is organized by the London Media Centre, and we receive the information from them.
CHRISTOPHER WERTH: It’s exactly the kind of answer Glen Kirton might like to hear because Chinese media make up the single largest group of non-accredited journalists in London for the Olympics. And if they’re inclined to convince a billion Chinese viewers that London is a great place to visit then, Kirton says, his job will be done.