News of Fiction and Pseudo Events15 years, 3 months ago
Richard Linning reviews Flat Earth News, the controversial book that exposes falsehoods, distortion and propaganda in the global media – and finds that public relations is not to blame!
The words of the former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger still ring in my ears. And still ring true. “Intelligence, intelligence, intelligence – that’s right, my boy.” Kissinger was giving his comment on the public affairs strategy I had prepared for my client, and incidentally his stamp of approval. The very valid point Kissinger was making was this: unless you know the other side of any issue and the arguments of those who support it as well as you do your own, then you know less than 50% of your own argument.
A new book by a British Journalist of the Year, Nick Davies provides intelligence, intelligence, and more valuable intelligence about the current state of news reporting by both the traditional and new media. In my opinion Flat Earth News should be compulsory reading for everyone in our field.
Much of this intelligence is the result of research commissioned for Flat Earth News from the journalism department of Cardiff University in the United Kingdom. Its conclusion makes interesting reading.
The Cardiff University research team analysed every single domestic news story published in four quality British daily newspapers and in a fifth, an influential mid-market title, in two randomly chosen weeks: a total of 2,207 reports. It found that 80% of the published stories came either wholly or mainly from a press agency such as the Press Association or was PR supplied material. Only 12% of the stories could be attributed solely to a journalist. Of the total, more than half carried clear signs of PR input.
The full report can be accessed at http://www.cf.ac.uk/jomec/aboutus/index.html
Davies doesn’t blame PR. Instead he puts the blame on “churnalism” which is the direct result of a process started, as James Cameron memorably put it, when grocers climbed on top of newspaper warhorses; when the new corporate media owners started cutting editorial staff and increasing editorial output.
The original canvas of Flat Earth News may be British but the picture Davies paints is one which can be recognized globally. Limited research of print and broadcast media in other parts of the world reflect the Cardiff University findings.
Online the situation is even worse, whether assessing the most popular websites run by major media organisations or the news portals of internet search engines. Davies is able to quote research indicating that on ABC TV’s website in 2006 for example 91% of the content was verbatim recycled agency copy; for MSNBC 81% and for CNN 59%. Among the news portals Yahoo! ran 97% agency copy, AOL 94%.
Even the revered BBC is not immune to the whips of the grocers in the saddle. Asked to explain why bloggers had been the first to uncover and circulate evidence of a breach of the international convention on chemical weapons in Iraq, Richard Sambrook, director of its Global News replied “deadlines and resources dictated that it would always be the case that individuals could find information or have information that the main news organisations would not get”.
The need for speed
And the deadlines are tight: the BBC measures it in microseconds. An internal memo reproduced by Davies reads “Our site came on top with a load time of 0.85 seconds to beat the likes of ITV and SKY (1.63 seconds).” And with limited resources, journalists everywhere are under increasing pressure to produce. Researchers found that in the 20 years from 1985 staffing levels across Fleet Street companies were more or less the same, but output measured by the amount of editorial space being filled had trebled.
“Churnalism” is the result. As journalists themselves readily admit, at the heart of their daily work is the need to rapidly repackage unchecked second-hand material. Little wonder then that the research already referred to found that even in the best British national newspapers only 12% of the stories published were all their own work and all but 12% of the key facts were published unchecked.
To prove the point Davies quotes the example of a spin doctor who told a reporter that his political master was staying on the eighth floor of a hotel just to test whether he would check and find the building had only six before he published. He didn’t.
To Davies’ credit he doesn’t blame public relations. Well not totally. “Most PR activity does not involve outright falsehood.” But practitioners will recognize their own work in his examination of a catalogue of pseudo-events, pseudo-groups, pseudo-evidence, leaks, pictures, illnesses and even wars.
As Edward Bernays once put it: “The counsel on public relations not only knows what news value is; but, knowing it, he is in a position to make news happen.” Caveat emptor, Davies admonishes his fellow journalists faced with this groaning buffet of tempting ready-packaged content designed to satisfy the media’s insatiable appetite. And why, he asks, is there a need any longer to resort to a crude appeal to an owner or editor’s personal or political agenda or threaten to use advertising muscle to get published when the grocers’ ride of the Valkyries has left the front door of the newsroom wide open.
Greater obligation placed on PR practitioners
In the absence of the journalist performing his traditional role of mediation, of the exercise of considered editorial judgement and taking time to check facts which winnowed the grain of truth from the chaff, a greater obligation is surely placed on the public relations practitioner to respect (as the IPRA Code of Venice puts it) the public interest by not intentionally disseminating false or misleading information. Davies doesn’t go down that road but as practitioners we should.
On this issue journalists and public relations people share common ground. The IPRA sponsored Charter on Media Transparency states quite clearly that editorial should appear only as the result of the editorial judgment of the journalists involved. The International Press Institute and the International Federation of Journalists (both signatories to the Charter) want this too.
In giving a warts and all tour d’horizon from the journalist’s perspective Flat Earth News provides plenty of the intelligence Kissinger approved of. What to do with it? At the very basic level it allows us (as Bernays said) to know what today’s news values are. It also suggests a rich vein of academic research.
More important than that, it suggests the starting point of professional dialogue between two groups of people whose livelihood depends so much on each other: them and us. A PR-initiated national debate about the adoption and implementation of the Charter for Media Transparency locally would be a good starting point.
Finally a caveat emptor to those of you encouraged to pick up a copy of Flat Earth News – you may question everything you read or hear from now on. And perhaps that’s a good thing.
Richard Linning, IPRA Board Member, Fellow Chartered Institute of Public Relationsmail the author
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