The story behind the story: The decisions, and emotions, behind one of our toughest days of reporting
It’s been nearly two weeks since the tragic passing of legendary endurance cyclist Mike Hall. Anyone I’ve asked, almost unanimously, has said that Mike’s death strangely affected them in a way they didn’t expect. Though none of these people had ever met him, they all connected with him by following his story and his passion, which made the grief run so much deeper.
On the morning of Friday, March 31, I came into the office a bit later than normal. It was around 10am and instead of the usual warm greeting by all the CyclingTips staff I was met with wide-open, sombre eyes.
“Did you hear?” someone said. I looked over at the computer screen belonging to Matt de Neef, our Australian editor, with a draft news article entitled “Grave concerns for Indian Pacific Wheel Race rider Mike Hall as unidentified cyclist dies in crash” It stopped me in my tracks. I could see the grief in everyone’s faces. I started asking questions: “Are you sure? How did you find out? Could it be someone else?”
Matt was visibly shaken, and I knew I needed to back off; he had to get back to work. He got on the phone with two experienced journalists on our editorial staff, Simone Giuliani and Neal Rogers, and collectively they decided on how to report this tragic news in a factual and respectful way. They made phone calls and sent messages to get first-hand accounts from people on the ground. Initially, all we were able to ascertain was that no names had been released and the identity of the cyclist hadn’t been confirmed.
Social media was, predictably, alight with speculation. Several media outlets had reported that the rider involved was part of the Indian Pacific Wheel Race. Mike Hall’s tracker had stopped at the exact location of the reported death. There were no other Indy Pac riders within several hundred kilometres. For many people that was all the information they needed to draw a conclusion. But there were other plausible scenarios that we considered, that could make this conclusion a mistake.
Weeks earlier, we had committed to covering the Indy Pac from start to finish, for better or for worse, and we had a decision to make on how we conveyed this horrible news to our audience. We reported the story, going out of our way to make it clear that the identity of the cyclist had not been confirmed. We carefully and accurately reported only the already publicly available and confirmed facts at that moment in time. And did we ever cop it.
Some in our audience were livid that we had reported what we knew, and associated Hall’s name with it, before next of kin had been notified. We received angry phone calls, emails, and messages on social media. There was anger about what had happened, and how it had been reported. We knew we had done nothing wrong, but it was an unexpected reaction to say the least. Some of our readers felt the way we handled our reporting of the tragic situation was “all for clicks,” or an example of “the race to be first.”
Apparently some people imagine me standing with a whip behind the desks of our journalists screaming “Get more clicks!” Little do they know that only a minute percentage of our revenue comes from clicks. Very few recognised, or acknowledged, that we removed all advertising from that story as quickly as possible. Still, in a moment that was as difficult for us as it was to those reading our news report, we were made to feel quite badly about the job we’d done.
We were told that we should be ashamed of ourselves. We were told that we had been disrespectful to Mike Hall, to his family, to the Indy Pac organisers, and to the competitors. Emotions were high, and it felt as though some were shooting the messenger. All of us felt sick to our stomachs. I’ve been through a few social media shitstorms in my day, and I always tell myself that tomorrow is another news day and the angry mob will move elsewhere, but it never feels any better.
The unique situation that had presented itself was that Mike was wearing a tracker that thousands were following in real time. News confirming that an Indy Pac competitor had been killed, on the road which corresponded to Mike Hall’s location, without anyone else for hundreds of kilometres on either side.
To hide behind the pretence that we and the thousands of others watching the race unfold knew nothing about Mike Hall would have been absurd. Crucially, it seemed even more absurd to think that us not reporting this terrible situation, which had unfolded under the public gaze, would somehow remove the possibility that those close to Hall could hear word outside the official channels. We had the unfortunate job of reporting the facts and updating the story as we knew more.
I’m fully supportive with how the team dealt with the situation, and the steps they took. The fact is, there are people working behind the scenes here who sometimes have tough decisions to make, and oftentimes it’s a no-win situation. For the most part, the content we produce at CyclingTips is information, entertainment, and escapism. Fortunately there aren’t many events of consequence we need to report on that could possibly harm someone, but when these things do come along, it’s an enormous responsibility that we take extremely seriously and are sure to be careful with.
Let’s hope we never have to report on such an event again. Rest in peace Mike Hall.