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Sunday, February 10, 2008

Does PR rule the newsroom?

This is a worthwhile read if you're someone who muses on the quality of journalism, whether today's reporters are overworked and the extent of PR influence in reporting. It flared up a week or so ago (I'm still clearing my inbox after holiday) so you may have already caught it.

First, there's some research from Cardiff University - The Quality and Independence of British Journalism - which finds, among other things, that 19% of quality newspaper stories are "all or mainly" from PR and, roughly speaking, that reporters fill three times as many pages as they and their predecessors did 20 years ago.

Then there's the book by Guardian reporter Nick Davies: Flat Earth News, An Award-winning Reporter Exposes Falsehood, Distortion and Propaganda in the Global Media.

Then there's Adrian Monck's blog post taking issue with some of the the maths and conclusions, which is as good a place as any to dive in. Here are a couple of excerpts.

"Here is how Nick summed up that research in November 2007:
The academics did two things. Year by year they looked at what happened to the editorial staffing levels of those Fleet Street papers over the next 20 years. The second thing they did was they measured the space which those editorial staff were filling, how many column inches of news.

You crunch all those numbers for all these companies and you come up with something that is really important – essentially, your average Fleet Street reporter now is filling three times as much space as he or she was 20 years ago. Turn that round, look at it from the reporter’s point of view: we only have one third of the time to do our job.
"Is this bald claim really true? The study links full-time employees to pagination.

"But what about:
  • freelance employees?
  • bought-in copy?
  • the amount of agency material used?
  • changes in technology?
  • the reduction in the number of editions?
"Could any of these things have a bearing on the analysis? And shouldn’t journalists be more productive? What about these innovations:
  • electronic databases
  • computers
  • mobile telephony
  • the Internet
And in response to the claims about unadalterated PR content going into newspapers:
"More than half the PR material in the stories Davies’ criticises actually comes from government, public bodies (police, hospitals, etc.), NGOs and charities (p22). When Andrew Gilligan broke his 45 minutes story he estimated that he appeared on 19 different BBC programmes. Given the range of outlets public PR materials now service, do we really want ministers, police officers and doctors conducting separate interviews with dozens of different publications?

"The real filler in newspapers (and online) is wire copy. This is presented as something of a shock and Nick conflates this misleadingly with PR material (at least he does on the Today programme). Actually the only shock is that newspapers have hidden their reliance on the agencies for so long."
There's some great discussion below the blog post, including replies from Nick Davies. It's well worth a read. I haven't read the whole report yet, nor Nick's book, so don't feel up to considered comment beyond saying I agree pretty much entirely with Adrian so far. But it raises a few thoughts, in no particular order and not especially well thought through:
  • 81% of stories aren't 'mainly from PR'. That's pretty good, actually, isn't it?

  • Press releases these days are predominantly written by former journalists or people who did the same communications degrees as journalists. They have the same skill set. It stands to reason more press releases will go into the paper unadulterated than previously, when they were badly structured and stiffly written in jargon-heavy language.

  • If PRs can present information in news-story form and publish it directly online, and the public can easily search for and aggregate information directly online, what are journalists for?

  • As Adrian points out, much of the PR material coming into newsrooms is via agency copy, which newsrooms have long been utterly reliant on and remain so.

  • What would an acceptable percentage of "all or mainly PR" stories be? 0%? 5%? 10%? Why?

  • What if it's a really straight up and down story that's come to your attention via a well-written press release and which you've called around on and can't find any other information on or angle. If you run that story, with minimal rewriting, that's "all PR". Is that bad?

  • I would still go out of my way to make calls on any press release I was working from and try to dig out more detail, other angles, fresh quotes. Or file without a byline. Old-fashioned pride, I guess. I also remember taking regional council minutes home for bed-time reading and marking potentially interesting bits with a yellow highlighter. Do reporters still do that?

  • Are reporters really too busy these days to make phone calls to check out stories offered by PRs? I genuinely don't know, I haven't been a reporter for years.

  • Given that newspapers began their lives as political broadsheets, the fact that the media is now only partly influenced by government, business and NGOs is progress, no?

  • Aside from journalism commentators, hands up anyone who lies awake at night worrying about the lack of independence of the media.

  • What does independent mean these days? Independent of what? I think it used to mean independent of the state, now it seems to mean 'not owned by a big media company', and sometimes 'owned by someone I like'.

  • If PR influence and non-independent media is 'bad', or at least 'worrying', does it follow that independent news editors are trusted above all others to source, check, filter and package our news? What training or unique qualifications do news editors have to do so?
  • How much news do you reckon you could scare up in an average week without looking at any press releases (no diary events) or information from PRs?


Juha said...

"Bald claim"... hmm.

Good contrarian take though.