So I’m about half way through Nick Davies’ Flat Earth News at the moment. It’s engrossing and depressing in equal measure to read Davies’ detailed insider account of everything that’s wrong with the 21st century mass media–an industry so dominated by commercial pressures to fill space as quickly and cheaply as possible that its journalists are reduced to what Davies calls “churnalism”: the regurgitating of press releases and stuff copied from the internet and the wires, with neither the time nor resources to fact check.
Of course I knew that this sort of thing went on, but I never really noticed just how widespread a practice it is. Now I see it everywhere. I can’t read anything on the news websites without looking between the lines for the source and the vested interest that planted it there.
And yes, I expect that if I pick up a copy of the shabby freesheet Mx, our local evening version of Metro, that it will be mostly recycled PR, stuff they’ve copied off Twitter and very little in the way of actual journalism, but I didn’t expect to start to notice so much of this stuff in the pages of supposedly reputable news sources like the Beeb and the Grauniad. Davies quotes research into the UK quality papers over a 2 week period that showed at least 60% of all stories in the “quality press” “consisted wholly or mainly of wire copy and or/PR material”. Adding on articles where the researchers weren’t sure of the source (another 8%), and those where some original content had been added to the PR/wire copy (another 20%), they were left with just 12% of stories where all the material had been generated by the reporters themselves.
Those are some depressing statistics.
In the middle of all this, just after reading the bit of the book where Davies describes how time-poor journos sometimes just mass email out to PRs asking for content, I arrived into work to find an email asking me to prepare a couple of hundred words on one of our new products for a New Zealand technology magazine, and one asking for the same for an Australian industry publication. I fully expect both my replies to run largely unaltered in the respective forthcoming issues.
On a lighter note, on the subject of not checking your facts, I was highly amused to see some quality Australian journalism escaping onto the airwaves of Channel 9 last week, via Stephen Colbert. (The ABC’s ever excellent Media Watch had this to say on the matter.)